BART-SamTrans peace treaty at last 

From all signs, ending the rancorous feud between BART and SamTrans is now a done deal. All that remains is for each transit agency involved to vote approval, which is expected to happen by the end of the month.

This long-awaited peace treaty is welcome news for the whole Bay Area, especially San Mateo County. Annual subsidies of up to $17 million for BART to operate the airport extension trains have been draining SamTrans bus budgets for years. Whenever SamTrans balked at paying, BART threatened to sue and SamTrans backed down to negotiate a smaller payment.

The most recent face-off came last year when increasingly deficit-plagued SamTrans unilaterally announced it could no longer afford a subsidy greater than $5 million a year. BART responded it was owed $10 million for the extension’s 2006 operating losses and was ready to start another lawsuit.

Fortunately the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which had been quietly brokering an interagency agreement for the past two years, finally got the two sides to accept a divorce settlement that will put a stop to the predictable annual brinkmanship.

The agreement calls for a quite substantial payout of at least $90 million over the next quarter-century. BART would also become free of the Peninsula service cuts and fare increases that SamTrans pushed in order to lessen its support obligations. BART now gains the ability to attract more riders by responding promptly to market conditions.

The new agreement satisfies SamTrans because none of its buyout payments come directly from current operating budgets. The bulk of the debt would be retired by turning over funding SamTrans was due to receive from state Proposition 1B, the transportation bond measure passed last November. The remainder would come in 24 annual $1.2 million payments from San Mateo County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation.

There is no denying that an earlier generation of San Mateo County politicians became overly eager to play in the regional big leagues and made bad deals for establishing Caltrain and the BART airport extension. Or at least their deals eventually turned out bad, even if they might have seemed like good ideas at the time.

When the airport extension plan was being sold in the early ’90s, the San Mateo Transportation Authority bought into rosy predictions that BART’s new Peninsula line would be a solid moneymaker. In exchange for receiving promised future profits that never happened, San Mateo agreed to fund any operating shortfalls inside the county.

One can only wonder why any experienced transportation official would believe the airport extensioncould somehow become Northern California’s only profitable public transit line. Let’s hope county government is now too sensible to ever be fooled like that again and — better yet — that the Peninsula public would be too alert to allow any repeat of such folly.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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