January 18, 2010
Employment positions in this issue's classifieds include an Executive Director; an Executive Director, Operations; and a Chief Operations Officer!
SamTrans: Redefining Its Role in a Continually Changing Economy
BY CHRISTINE DUNN, Public Information Officer, San Mateo County Transit District, San Carlos, CA
Faced with unprecedented fiscal challenges driven by slashed state budgets and a deep economic downturn, the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) is pressing ahead with opportunities to keep and attract riders and to redefine its role as a mobility manager.
The San Francisco Peninsula-based transit district operates SamTrans bus and paratransit services and funds shuttles that link key employment centers with San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District and Caltrain service. The transit district also is the managing partner for the three-agency partnership that owns Caltrain, the region’s commuter rail system. And the district manages the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which administers revenue from a half-cent sales tax for transit and transportation programs.
The elimination of state funding in California, a decrease in ridership, and a decline in local sales tax revenue all have hit the transit district hard. In spite of a number of cost-cutting measures implemented earlier in the year, on July 1, 2009, SamTrans faced a $28.4 million budget shortfall.
For the first time in its 33-year history, the agency was forced to implement a 7.5 percent reduction in its service. The changes included the elimination of six express routes to San Francisco and one local route and a reduction in the frequency of service on six routes. In addition, the transit district will increase fares Feb. 1, the second time in a year.
But even as the district implemented these cuts, there was strong sentiment, led by the board of directors, to go forward, prepare for the eventual economic turnaround, and proceed with the reinvention of the district to meet the needs of coming years.
So, even as SamTrans imposed cuts in service, the agency began rolling out 135 new, streamlined buses. The buses, which will replace about one-third of the district’s fleet, have a host of new features designed to make taking transit more comfortable, including upholstered seats, a smoother-shifting four-speed transmission, automatic rear doors, and LED interior lights. SamTrans accomplished the bus purchase primarily with capital-only federal and state funds, including $3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.
Caltrain is grappling with similar financial realities. The elimination of state transit assistance, although not impacting the agency directly, has placed additional financial strain on Caltrain’s partners: SamTrans, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
After years of setting record-breaking numbers, ridership began to decline. As a result, Caltrain was forced to eliminate eight midday trains and increase parking fees.
In spite of this, high-speed rail and the electrification of Caltrain continue to move forward, carrying the promise of a modernized Caltrain and a significant public works project of the kind that occurs once in a generation. Last year, Caltrain reached an agreement with the California High Speed Rail Authority to work together to bring high-speed rail to the Caltrain corridor in partnership with the commuter rail system’s own electrification and modernization plans, aided considerably by the fact that Caltrain owns its right-of-way.
The federal government has committed $8 billion in ARRA funds to build high-speed train corridors throughout the U.S., and California voters approved a $10 billion high-speed rail bond in 2008. As the only high-speed rail project with matching state and local funds, California is well positioned to receive a major share of federal dollars. In addition, California has completed a decade of engineering and design work for high-speed rail.
As the state continues to grapple with its budget, the transportation authority can credit voters with the foresight to reauthorize the half-cent sales tax in 2004, long before the downturn of the economy. The passage of the measure ensures transportation funding in San Mateo County through 2033. The TA will issue its first “call for projects” under the reauthorized measure this spring, spurring the reinvention of the district’s business units as part of a menu of transit and transportation options that constitute mobility management.
The challenges of today have brought the importance of public transportation into sharp focus. Now is the time to take advantage of every opportunity to expand and improve public transportation. Working together, in our communities and across the country, we can continue to provide the kind of clean, efficient, reliable service that moves America forward.