The San Mateo County Transit District's board of directors did as expected on Wednesday and scheduled a public hearing on potentially significant service cuts.
I use the term "scheduled" loosely, as the directors set the public hearing for some vague, unidentified time in "late July or early August."
(Disclaimer: The loose schedule is distressing to me. I am a member of SamTrans' "Citizen's Advisory Committee," which offers its input to the board regarding transportation matters but wields no actual power. We have no meeting scheduled for July and our August meeting is on Aug. 5. The CAC would like to have a well-thought-out opinion for the board, but right now it's looking like the board might have the hearing before our meeting.)
As I wrote last week, SamTrans is faced with a budget deficit of about $30 million and Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey is exploring services cuts up to 15 percent to close the gap.
A public hearing is legally required before any cuts are put in place, and SamTrans also hopes to hold four community meetings in different areas of the County before the directors vote on a proposal, probably at their September meeting.
Harvey presented the directors with a couple different proposals Wednesday. Outlining what he expected with a 7.5-percent cut, Harvey said: Lines MX, NX, PX/RX and 342 would be eliminated; Lines KX and 397 would be reduced to 60 minute headways in off-peak and weekend hours; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. on weekends.
Under a 15-percent reduction, all of the above would occur, plus: Lines 141, 270, 280 and 295 would be eliminated; Line 391 would no longer provide service to San Francisco; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. seven days a week.
"It seems to me that 7.5 percent is a minimum -- I hope 15 percent is an absolute maximum," said director, and Redwood City Councilmember Jim Hartnett. "I would suggest (staff) not be hesitant to come up with a different percentage in-between. (But) 7.5 percent is not going to get us where we need to go."
SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon told the directors that SamTrans actually would rather add services, especially in the face of what he called "the most-enlightened federal policy in years." Most federal transit funds, however, are being distributed for capital projects rather than operational costs.
"We don't want to leave our most vulnerable (patrons) in a bad situation while we're supposed to be an answer in a sustainable society," Scanlon said. Paraphrasing a proverb, he added, "We're definitely going through Hell right now, but we're going through it. I hope the other side is not far away."
Years of the now-ended practice of subsidizing BART operations in San Mateo County continue to plague SamTrans financially, Scanlon added, and ultimately the agency might "need to get out of the Caltrain business" in order to properly run the bus system.
According to SamTrans Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington, SamTrans is providing $16.5 million for Caltrain operations this year, compared to Santa Clara VTA's $16.3 million and San Francisco Muni's $7.2 million.
One more sign of the distressing situation local newspapers find themselves in: once upon a time, our three local dailies would have pounced on this important story. Yet staffing cuts (the San Mateo County Times once had a dedicated transporation beat reporter) have taken their toll -- not one word of this proposal has made it into the Times, San Mateo Daily Journal or the Daily News.