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Reserves help SamTrans balance budget
June 09, 2011, 03:20 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Kore Chan/Daily Journal SamTrans riders, like these on El Camino Real in San Mateo, will not face any changes to routes or service this year. Transit officials, however, are preparing to analyze future needs which could lead to changes.

SamTrans is ending this fiscal year with an operating surplus of about $10 million, yet the transit agency is using that money to pay down debt and must still dip into its reserves by $12.6 million to balance next year’s $128.4 million budget.

The trouble is, SamTrans does not have a reserve policy and the money it is using now to balance the budget should go toward paying down millions in debt obligations.

SamTrans had actually anticipated running out of reserves in 2010 but, with a series of service reductions, fare increases and furlough days, the agency has since been able to push that number back to 2015, said Gigi Harrington, chief financial officer.

Currently, SamTrans has about $58 million in reserves but, based on current spending, that number is expected to diminish to nothing by August 2015.

A series of fare increases are scheduled over the next several years, Harrington said.

The transit agency is also preparing a service plan to analyze the future needs of its customers in the coming years to better serve them. That plan could ultimately lead SamTrans to establish new routes and eliminate existing ones. There are no planned changes to routes or service this year.

The reserves SamTrans used to solve its deficit come from surplus over the years in its operating budget and from bond proceeds, meant to pay down its debt, much of which is related to the Bay Area Rapid Transit extension to the airport.

The SamTrans Board of Directors approved the fiscal year 2011-12 budget in San Carlos yesterday.

FY 2011-12’s budget is a decrease of $4.6 million or 3.4 percent from last year’s budget.

SamTrans has annual debt obligations of $24.5 million, with $12.7 million of that going toward paying off its share of debt related to BART. That debt is estimated to be retired by 2032.

SamTrans’ woes have caused it to reduce its contribution to Caltrain by nearly $10 million as it focuses on its primary mission, to provide bus service in the county.

SamTrans has used about $40 million in reserves to balance budgets in both 2009 and 2010 and another $12.6 million for this next budget.

Ridership at SamTrans is down for the year by about 4.1 percent, although much of the decline can be attributed to the elimination of some bus routes last year.

Ridership did climb in April this year, however, by 1.6 percent compared to 2010.

Riders only provide SamTrans with about 17 percent of its operating budget, though. Most of the transit agency’s support comes from a half-cent sales tax and local transit funds through the Transportation Development Act.

The board also approved a $19.2 million capital budget at its meeting yesterday. The capital budget is used for buying new buses, maintaining the current fleet and infrastructure needs.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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