BART, SamTrans must work it out

The ongoing money dispute between Bay Area Rapid Transit and the San Mateo County Transit District is heating up again, with ugly ultimatums flying back and forth between the two agencies.

BART insists SamTrans owes it $11.2 million next year to repay operating losses of the extension line to San Francisco International Airport. SamTrans counters that it won’t pay a cent more than $5 million and will never make another payment after next year.

The problem began when the BART-SFO extension was being negotiated during the 1990s. San Mateo County wanted commuter stations along the Peninsula route and costlier underground tracks. A partnership was formed that obligated SamTrans to pay any BART-SFO operating losses in exchange for retaining all future profits from the extension line.

In hindsight, this proved to be a bad deal for SamTrans. The extension went into service just in time for SFO air travel and Peninsula commuting to be hit by the double blow of Sept. 11 and the dot-com recession. Therefore ridership has always been significantly below the euphoric expectations of the prosperous late ’90s.

Overall the Peninsula ridership numbers appear to be slowly rising, although recently BART and SamTrans have been releasing contradictory figures about whether passenger numbers are going up or down. However, there is no argument that the SFO extension is still a long way from breaking even.

The BART-SFO line has been a significant drain on both transit agencies. SamTrans is currently facing a $24.7 million deficit primarily due to a sales tax revenue drop and rising costs for fuel and health benefits. SamTrans’ bus fare was raised 25 cents last September and service was reduced. In 2004, SamTrans refused to pay any of the $15 million BART demanded. BART threatened a lawsuit and the two parties settled for $10 million.

It seems pointless for the western Bay Area’s primary transit providers to continue engaging in such consistent brinkmanship. What should happen now is for both agencies to come to the bargaining table and renegotiate an agreement that makes sense under today’s realities. SamTrans clearly cannot afford to continue paying seven-figure subsidies. BART could possibly end with even less money received from a public agency forced into declaring insolvency.

The most reasonable new approach might be for BART to delay collection of a substantial portion of the operating subsidy. Then, if and when the SFO extension ever begins turning a profit, those revenues would first go toward paying the uncollected subsidies before SamTrans gets a cent. For the sake of the riders, the agencies must get their act together and move forward with a realistic plan.

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