SamTrans still faced with deficit

While SamTrans’ divorce from BART earlier this year meant the agency won’t be on the hook for millions of dollars in BART costs for the San Francisco International Airport extension for the first time in years, the Peninsula’s bus operator still faces a $10.5 deficit in the year ahead.

SamTrans board members will begin the process of trying to close the gap in its $126.9 million fiscal 2007-08 budget at a meeting today.

While the $10 million figure may seem staggering, it is a big improvement from last May, when board members stared down a $24.7 million structural deficit, officials said.

An agreement signed earlier this year dissolved an often acrimonious affair between SamTrans and BART, the former of which was forced tosubsidize the SFO service to the tune of $32 million in recent years when projected ridership fell short.

The biggest expenses will be $16 million SamTrans will pay as a partner agency, along with Muni and Valley Transit, for Caltrain operations, spokesman Jonah Weinberg said.

Another $13 million will pay for contracted paratransit bus service for the disabled.

“We’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go because we still have a structural deficit,” SamTrans board Chairman Jim Hartnett said.

As a partner in Caltrain, SamTrans doesn’t plan to separate from the train agency as it did with BART, but is working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other rail agencies to come up with a dedicated regional rail-funding source, Weinberg said.

Right now, a one-half-cent sales tax in San Mateo County and fare revenue rates originally conceived to fund SamTrans as a stand-alone service are also being used to support Caltrain, paratransit services and some shuttle operations, Hartnett said.

“It was never set up to support anything but the bus system, so there isn’t any surprise there is a strain on the budget,” Hartnett said.

While all solutions to closing the gap are still on the table, including service cuts or raising fares, it’s more likely SamTrans will tap its reserves to close the $10.5 million gap, SamTrans Director Adrienne Tissier said.

Many on the SamTrans board are reluctant to reduce service to the agency’s 47,480 average daily riders, which unavoidably results in fewer people taking the bus and has a domino effect on fare revenue, Tissier said.

While not counting on it, some at SamTrans are hoping rumors of a rosier-than-projected state sales tax figure, expected in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget in coming days, will mean a grace-saving windfall for the bus operator, Weinberg said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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