SamTrans struggles with fiscal woes

Faced with faltering ridership figures at a time when many transit agencies, such as Caltrain and BART, are experiencing growth, San Mateo County’s bus operator is looking for new sources of revenue and ways to remake its service over the long run, according to officials.

To comeup with feasible alternatives for turning the agency around, officials expect to form a subcommittee to probe potential cost-cutting measures and alternative revenue sources, San Mateo County Transit District spokesman spokesman Jonah Weinberg said. While board members couldn’t say with certainty what options will be on the table, an additional sales tax, a radical remaking of service, fare hikes and service cuts are likely to be discussed, officials said.

Whether a makeover would be along the lines of Caltrain’s successful Baby Bullet services, which increased express trains at the expense of local service, isn’t clear, Samtrans board member and county Supervisor Jerry Hill said.

“I would think that with the cost of gas [so high], people would be jumping on the buses,” Hill said.

That isn’t the case, however. In spite of an improving economy and ballooning fuel costs, average bus ridership during the week dropped slightly to 46,946 last year, compared with 47,062 in fiscal 2004-05.

After closing a $25 million gap in its annual 2006-07 budget last month, the board is poised to take on the even bigger problem of how to return the agency to a profitable business, officials said. SamTrans’ total expenses exceeded revenue by $7 million last year, and without additional income, cuts in service could be inevitable.

“The current situation is that, 30 years ago, SamTrans started operating a bus company with a half-cent sales tax. Since then, it has taken on a variety of different expenses,” Weinberg said.

This year, those expenses include nearly $13 million to provide bus service to the disabled, $16 million to help operate Caltrain and $5 million for BART service in the county, according to a report by Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington.

Meanwhile, SamTrans still is running off the same half-cent sales tax, which isn’t enough, Weinberg said.

“Anyone thatdrives on our freeways today realizes that we have to come up with an alternative,”

Hill said.

SamTrans lays much of the blame for the ongoing deficit at the feet of BART. Ridership on the extension to San Francisco International — including stations in South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae — has fallen far short of original projections.

BART has defended the original projects, saying it never could have predicted the economic downturn of a couple years ago, nor the drop in air travel due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Forecasts of 33,000 trips on average weekdays at the Millbrae station by 2010 are far from the current 6,400. Because of an agreement between SamTrans and BART to share the expense, the lack of riders and, therefore, revenue have forced the bus agency to subsidize the cost of BART into the tens of millions since service began.

BART ridership on the Peninsula extension increased by 2.6 percent last year over fiscal 2004-05.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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