Wednesday, June 3, 2009

SamTrans may cut service by 15 percent in face of $30 million deficit

SAN CARLOS, Calif. -- The San Mateo County Transit District faces an unexpected $30 million budget deficit and may have to cut service by up to 15 percent as soon as September, transit officials said Wednesday night.

Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey told the district's Citizens Advisory Committee that the economic downturn, lower sales tax revenues and a cut in state transit subsidies have caused an unprecedented budget shortfall for SamTrans. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this week cut the transit subsidy for the next three to five years after a number of budget initiatives failed in May's special election.

"I certainly wish I was here to talk with you tonight with better news," Harvey told the CAC. "This is an evolving issue that is literally changing hourly."

(Disclaimer: Your blogger is a member of the SamTrans CAC.)

While no fare increase is on the horizon, Harvey said, the possibility exists that SamTrans -- which just raised its base fare by 25 cents in February -- may need to ask for one in Fiscal Year 2011. Harvey stated that a fare increase would only improve revenue by a couple million dollars -- a pittance in face of a $30 million deficit. Service cuts are more effective, said the SamTrans COO.

"We don't want to balance our budget on the back of our riders," Harvey (right, at podium) said.

SamTrans staff will go before the district's board of directors next Wednesday to ask them to schedule a public hearing and a number of public meetings in July, with the board making a recommendation on cuts in August. Any changes would likely take place sometime in the third quarter, Harvey said.

"We simply cannot survive as an agency with a $30 million deficit," Harey said. "This causes us to make some difficult choices now."

The board could choose to cut service by less than the 15 percent staff is planning for, Harvey said, and any changes in bus service would also be reflected in similar cuts in paratransit services. According to Harvey, the agency would also reorganize its administrative side, with job cuts to senior staff and administrative personnel.

Harvey said it is too early to point out any specific cuts, but noted that if the board recommends the full 15 percent cut, lines 295, 342 (which Harvey said is the least cost-effective line in the system, with an average of 140 riders spread over 20 daily runs) and most express services would be completely eliminated. Other lines would see a reduction in service frequency.

But ridership numbers cannot be the sole determining factor in the cuts, Harvey said, thanks to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which seeks to "fairly" distribute transit resources among the entire population.

"We can't reduce service based simply on mathematics," Harvey said. "I can't tell you what impact (the deficit) will have on both SamTrans and Caltrain."

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