The following Guest Opinion by Steve Schmidt was published in the Almanac's Feb. 21 print edition:
By Steve Schmidt
Finally, there is a deal in the works to settle the annual squabble over how much Samtrans owes BART for the operation of BART's extension to the San Francisco Airport. This is a relief to residents in the transit-impoverished South County.
The proposed arrangement, negotiated behind closed doors, would cap Samtrans' annual contribution at $2 million a year. However, it would also require a one-time payment by Samtrans of $37 million to BART to close the books on the grandiose SFO extension project and help BART get started on an extension from Fremont to the Warm Springs district of San Jose.
While these are frightening numbers, they are less than the annual $11 million to $17 million a year Samtrans has been paying to BART since 2003. The reduction of bus service in the county is directly related to these obligations.
This new glimpse into the financial and political world of regional transit should remind Menlo Park residents that there is more to civics than local development, council candidate's campaign contributions and questionable commission appointments. Our City Council members also should be representing us in regional issues.
Mayor Kelly Fergusson recently narrowly failed to gain a seat on the San Mateo County Transit Authority (TA). The TA is one of three transit boards involving local elected officials. For years all have been heavily influenced by Daly City politicians. Independent thinking on the county transportation boards has not been welcome.
San Mateo County's strange relationship with BART started in the 1990s and continued under the influence of Supervisor Jerry Hill and his Daly City predecessors on the Samtrans board. Enthusiasm for BART inspired them to tap Samtrans coffers freely in order to extend this urban subway system out of Daly City.
Their promise was that ridership generated by the three added stations between Daly City and SFO would actually be sufficient to make money for Samtrans. These unrealistically optimistic ridership projections were approved and trotted off to Washington in order to secure $750 million in federal grants for the design, property acquisition and construction of the project. Now, $1.5 billion later, reality has set in.
The current arrangement from which Samtrans is now trying to extricate itself is due largely to the fact that the South County is under-represented on the Samtrans board, where continued domination by Daly City and its heirs has for many years controlled the membership of the board and its decisions.
The cost for our not paying attention to these county transit issues that involve high finance and creative accounting has contributed to today's crisis. I hope that independent local officials such as Jim Janz of Atherton, Terry Nagel of Burlingame and our Mayor Fergusson can raise awareness of the public transportation needs of the entire county and open up the process so that the current Samtrans/BART/SFO fiasco is never repeated.
(Steve Schmidt is a former mayor of Menlo Park and a former member of the Caltrain and Samtrans board.)