SamTrans closes budget gap with no service cuts

Having already spent surplus reserves to close deficits in prior years, SamTrans board members on Wednesday approved a plan to close a $10 million budget gap with funds already earmarked for debt payments.

The county’s bus operator will use $9.7 million from an estimated $125 million set aside for long-term debt service to balance its $127 million budget. The overall budget will hold steady compared with last year,which also came in at about $127 million.

Dipping into the debt service funds won’t have an immediate effect, but could compound the agency’s fiscal problems if not repaid within a reasonable amount of time, SamTrans Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington said.

Staff and board members on Wednesday opposed a fare hike or cuts in bus services to balance the budget, fearing a loss of ridership at a time when it has shown incremental improvements. Bus ridership grew significantly in April, adding about 6.4 percent, which translates to a 1.6 percent increase overall as the fiscal year draws to a close on June 30, Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey said.

SamTrans expects increased revenue of $1 million as a result of ridership gains, Harrington said.

“Right now, we’re trying to increase ridership and make public transportation appealing and affordable with the idea of getting more people in the door and then keeping them,” said SamTrans board member and county Supervisor Jerry Hill.

Over the years, Hill said he has learned from watching BART ridership on the Peninsula flounder parallel to services cuts.

The agency last increased its fares by 25 cents, from $1.25 to $1.50, in 2005, said SamTrans spokesman Jonah Weinberg.

SamTrans’ capital budget of $45 million was also approved unanimously. The agency will pay about $25 million, half the overall cost, toward the purchase of 126 new buses, plus two paratransit coaches in fiscal year 2007-08. The remainder will be paid a year from now, with the buses scheduled for service in 2009, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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