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Money train
January 18, 2013, 05:00 AM By Jon Mays Daily Journal staff
Now that San Mateo County has lined its coffers with about an extra $60 million a year thanks to gracious and generous voters who approved Measure A, a 10-year half-cent sales tax in November, it seems as if every group out there is interested in a piece.

The amount is nothing to sneeze at, but it's not as if it will cure all ills. But still, the Board of Supervisors meeting this week was beginning of a process that will soon see that extra money get eaten up relatively quickly. First, there's Seton Medical Center in Daly City, which should be expected since it basically paid for the measure's successful campaign. There is no hard-and-fast amount attached to the center's needed retrofit, but the ballpark has always been about $15 million a year. That chunks the amount down to about $45 million.

And others are coming out of the woodwork. It's not necessarily "alms for the poor,” it's more, "Hey buddy, how about we make a deal that works well for everyone?” And SamTrans is at the head of that line. For a few years, SamTrans has been trying to find a way to reduce its $131 million structural deficit it's been saddled with through its BART extension deal penned years and years ago. One option was asking for a three-county sales tax increase that was always going to be a hard sell because it would involve San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. And this past election would have been tough since the county measure was on the ballot along with statewide tax increases. So, asking the county for a portion of the Measure A money just may preclude such a wide and arduous process.

SamTrans officials are pitching it as a way to help pay for its paratransit service which costs it about $13.3 million a year with only a 5.8 percent farebox recovery rate. Paratransit serves the elderly, the young and the disabled — all the same group the county sales tax campaign touted to assist before the election, so it does jibe with the philosophy of the tax. In addition, tax proponents may have said it would assist a variety of services but the ballot language made it clear it could not promise anything. SamTrans hasn't asked for an official amount but numbers between $10 million to $15 million have been bandied about. That chunks the amount down to about $30 million.

And other groups, including parks backers, child care and mental health advocates are asking for money as well. So that tax money could go fast. I do hope, however, at least some of it is set aside for debt service or a much-needed rainy day fund. SamTrans' proposal makes some sense, and I could see a county allocation of about $5 million to $7.5 million a year for the tax's 10-year term. That would go far, and could prevent the transit agency from seeking a more difficult path toward financial solvency. The agency has booming train ridership, but it doesn't pay for its service. And the transit agencies in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have had a hard time making their financial contributions. With the money saved through electrification, this county portion may help ease its debts enough that any talk of an additional tax may be forever extinguished — at least I would hope.

Supervisors Carole Groom and Adrienne Tissier both sit on the SamTrans Board of Directors, so they are intimately aware of the agency's financial situation and will likely be amenable to some sort of Measure A funding for paratransit service. And it only takes three votes on the Board of Supervisors to seal the deal.

***

It may seem strange to some that the train that travels through Silicon Valley to San Francisco does not have any sort of WiFi service, an irony that is not lost on Caltrain officials. However, providing the service on the fast-moving trains is easier said than done. What it takes, pure and simple, is money. About $3 million to start and about $1 million a year ongoing. While having such a service would surely draw riders and make the current trips more enjoyable, it's not the primary goal of the agency — which is to make sure the trains run on time.

Officials are reaching out to the business community to see if anyone wants to sponsor it. Might I suggest splitting it? It can be Sleep Train at night and Twitter during the day — after all, Twitter lights up with tweets aplenty any time there is a delay on the train, or any random occurrence. It seems Twitter is already the unofficial sponsor of Caltrain, so someone just call up Jack Dorsey and be done with it. A tweet might work too.


Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jon@smdailyjournal.com. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.


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