Sunday, April 10, 2011

Commercial Trains: SamTrans close to disappearing

SFExaminer: SamTrans close to disappearing
While much has been made about the devastating service cuts being considered by Caltrain, an even worse scenario could befall the rail operator’s sister agency, SamTrans.

Depending on its funding contribution to Caltrain, SamTrans could run out of cash within three years, forcing the agency to cease operations entirely. Even if the transit agency slashes its current annual allocation to Caltrain by two-thirds — a potential death knell for the rail operator — SamTrans would still become bankrupt by 2015, according to the agency’s latest financial models.

“This is how serious our situation is,” said Mark Simon, a spokesman for the agency. “We are looking at the very real possibility of having to cease operations.”

Since 2006, SamTrans has faced a mounting structural deficit, forcing the agency to slash service, increase fares and lay off workers. The agency, which has a $138 million annual budget, has been hurt significantly by dwindling funding contributions from state and federal sources, along with its onerous debt-financing program, which includes nearly $13 million in annual repayments for the BART extension to the Peninsula. SamTrans also has yet to be fully repaid by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Valley Transportation Authority for buying up the rail right of way that allowed Caltrain to operate.

Those factors have left the agency with an untenable funding model, and one that could leave SamTrans’ 45,000 daily riders — 60 percent of whom have no car — without any service.

With the future of the agency in doubt, SamTrans officials are set to embark on a comprehensive service plan, the most extensive evaluation of its operations in a decade, Simon said.

That project will include an assessment of SamTrans’ service routes, what time it operates and the size of its vehicles. It will take a year to complete.

“We’re looking at everything from the tires up,” Simon said. “We need to see how we can create a more efficient model.”

One option that SamTrans is ready to pursue is reducing its annual contribution to Caltrain — which is managed by the same transit district — from $14.7 million to $4.9 million. That reduction has been a main contributor to Caltrain’s $30.3 million projected deficit, a shortfall that has the rail agency contemplating slashing its service to include only weekday peak-time trains.

Even if SamTrans cuts its annual contributions to Caltrain, it will run out of money by August 2015. If it continues to pay $14.7 million a year, the agency will be bankrupt by April 2014.

SamTrans’ financial model is based on an evaluation of the agency’s expenditures, revenue and operating reserves. The agency will become bankrupt — and thus be forced to fold — when it runs out of reserve funding to pay its debt.

Buses syncing up with train routes
While the long-term future of SamTrans remains in doubt, the transit agency is set to undergo service changes this month that will help it out in the short term.

Starting April 10, SamTrans will change service on 19 bus routes. The aim of the service changes is to connect lines better with BART and Caltrain stations, improve on-time performance and realize cost savings with increased operating efficiencies.

Some trips will be discontinued, such as an afternoon bus on the 72 line. On other lines, such as the 280 and 281, weekend and weekday service times will be changed to improve on-time performance. Nearly all trips on the 271 line will be adjusted by five minutes to connect better with departing and arriving trains at the Redwood City Caltrain station.

SamTrans reviews and changes its scheduling operations three times a year in response to traffic conditions and passenger travel patterns. The new scheduling times will soon be available at bus stops, ticket vendors and on the agency’s website. — Will Reisman

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