SamTrans may be broke by 2015, putting bus and train service at risk

Funding for Caltrain electrification makes the longterm future for train service brighter, but SamTrans’ financial woes still put bus service and Caltrain at long-term risk.

As of the most recent budget approved in June, SamTrans reserves stood at $46million, and the agency planned to draw down another $10 million to balance its budget.  As of the last financial overview last summer, SamTrans was expected to reach the bottom of its reserves in 2015.  CFO Gigi Harrington told San Mateo County Daily News recently that SamTrans plans to update the projections this fall.

The debt for the project connecting BART to SFO is a major part of SamTrans’ financial burden. SamTrans pays about $10 million per year to service the debt for the project, payments will will continue until 2032.  In the budget for FY2012/2013, SamTrans drew down $10.6 million in reserves to balance the budget.

SamTrans has a weekday average ridership of about 45,000 a day (similar to Caltrain, which is about 50,000 recently).  45 percent of SamTrans riders travel on just four routes: the 120 (Connections to Colma and Daly City BART), 292 (Hillsdale to SF), 390 and 391 (El Camino).   Caltrain, with higher fares, gets over 50% of its revenue from riders, while SamTrans gets only 12% of revenue from riders.

SamTrans has been in the process of reviewing its service plan. Options presented included refocusing on heavy-use areas including Daly City, South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City and East Palo Alto, focusing on the popular El Camino lines, or leaving the service as is.

The different options represent fundamentally different choices about transit service and bus service.  Should bus service be seen as as offering a lower-cost option for the same routes as train service?  Or should buses be used where they provide a distinctive advantage, like feeder routes to trains and circulating among downtown areas.

What do you think about how best to maintain and improve bus service?