SamTrans approves new budget, hopes to cut deficit

ompeting transit agency budgets could leave riders holding the bag for $5 million in outstanding subsidies to BART from the San Mateo County Transit Agency board.

SamTrans approved a $127 million budget Wednesday, including $5 million to subsidize operating costs for the BART extension line to San Francisco International Airport. Last week, BART approved a balanced budget that included $11.2 million from SamTrans for the same line. The two agencies are expected to get together to negotiate their budget differences in coming weeks.

To blame for the differences is an ongoing dispute over cost overruns resulting from lower-than-projected ridership numbers on the airport line. The projections were made prior to the economic downturn, when the agreement giving SamTrans full responsibility for the cost of running the line was negotiated. The agency would also collect any profits the line makes.

Average weekday ridership has been down for four of the past five months in 2006, according to SamTrans. Overall growth for the year, however, came in at about 3 percent, according to BART spokesman Linton Johnson. The low ridership figures, and resulting lack of revenue, have left SamTrans continuing to subsidize local BART service.

Under SamTrans’ approved budget, bus riders won’t pay higher fares or see service cuts, in spite of a $25 million operating budget gap. Fearing a loss of riders if they raised fares two straight years, board members approved a plan to refinance about $18 million in debt and tap into reserves for about $4.5 million, plus other minor cuts, to close the deficit, according to Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington.

SamTrans’ 2006-07 operating budget stands at about $127 million, up from $121 million in 2005-06. “The fiscal 2007 operation budget maintains the high quality and reliable service the community has come to expect from [SamTrans],” Harrington said.

But some of the strategies used to close the gap pave the way for equally tough times ahead. Total expenses for the transit district now tally more than $22 million — a significant improvement over the total deficit of $33 million the agency faced a year ago.

“We still have a serious structural problem,” SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon told board members.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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