Will San Mateo County bolster its struggling transit programs with the sales tax approved in November?

In recent years, the biggest problem with Caltrain’s 3-county funding structure has been SamTrans.  SamTrans is in poor financial shape and continues to draw down its reserves.  A shortly forthcoming financial forecast is expected to show SamTrans is projected to run out of reserves in 2016 (a slight improvement from a previous forecast of 2015 bankruptcy.

Because of SamTrans’ financial woes, it has reduced its contribution to Caltrain to $5.2 million, the amount committed from San Mateo County’s sales tax, in place since 1988.  Samtrans and Caltrain have made up the remainder with a variety of temporary sources.

This past November, San Mateo County voters passed a new half-cent sales tax with a ten year sunset.  The measure did not allocate the funds to specific services but mentioned services for seniors/low-income/disabled residents.

Given how bus service is used in San Mateo County, its primary role is to serve low-income riders.  64% of SamTrans’ riders have no access to a car, and 58% have incomes under $50,000, which is considered low-income in this high-cost area.

The County Supervisors now need to decide how to allocate the funding from the sales tax. SamTrans is requesting up to $12 to $13 million in funds.  The funds would fill their structural gap, allowing SamTrans to continue to run buses and paratransit services, and also make its contribution to Caltrain.  From the perspective of this tax source, funding Caltrain is a side effect – the main goal is to continue to operate the bus services for low income riders without other transportation choices.

To improve its cost-effectiveness, SamTrans has been engaging in a comprehensive analysis of its service, and plans to make changes to improve service in high use communities (East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Daly City/South SF); improve effectiveness of its popular El Camino routes, improve east/west connections, and cut some low performance routes.

On February 12, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will hold a workshop when the Supervisors will consider how to allocate the funds. It is not clear whether the Supervisors will have a periodic allocation process and how much they will allocate this year.

In the longer run, the choices may be different.  As of 2019+, the post-electrification Caltrain operating budget will look different (more riders, lower cost per rider) and it will be good to consider a options for how to operate and fund transit in the corridor in that time frame.  If the San Mateo County Supervisors allocate the funds in shorter time windows, there will be opportunities to restructure at a later date.

Also in the long term  this blogger has questions about our region’s positioning of “bus” service as a low-cost, low-end offering and “train” service as a high-cost high-end offering.  At the same, premium private sector bus services are providing high end corporate commute services and starting to provide innovative mid-range services (see RidePal.com), where routes are created using online tools to aggregate customer demand.

Also, a substantial amount of bus and shuttle service acts as feeder service to trunk lines (rail, express bus), but our region does not do a good job of coordinating and rewarding that service with reasonable schedules, fares and institutional incentives SamTrans, and our regional funding agency the MTC, measure the success of routes on a line by line basis, and ignore contribution to connected service. In the long run there may be opportunities to rethink the relative roles of bus and train technologies.

Given the way that transit services work in San Mateo County today, it seems reasonable to encourage San Mateo County to backfill the SamTrans budget gap with this sales tax.   It would be good to stabilize funding now and plan for improvement in the 2019/2020 time frame.

Fellow transit advocates and San Mateo County residents, what do you think? Should we support SamTrans’ request for San Mateo County sales tax funding, and why?