Caltrain, Peninsula, Regional Rail, SamTrans, South Bay

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Last week was a week of contrasts for the commuter rail line that connects San Francisco to the Peninsula and South Bay.  At the start of the week, Caltrain was poised to certify an environmental impact report, thus formally approving and adopting its electrification project.  This would be a big milestone, as it would finally move this long-stalled project forward and make it eligible for funding.  However, at the April 1 Joint Powers Board meeting, any excitement about reaching this milestone was quelled. Caltrain agreed to postpone project approval because of public comment that was submitted, which essentially threatened that a lawsuit would be filed, alleging violation of the California Environmental Quality Act, if the EIR was certified.  But there was also a matter of more immediate concern: a potentially devastating budget deficit was announced.

Caltrain, unlike other transit operators that have been deprived of State Transit Assistance funds, does not enjoy a dedicated revenue source.  Rather, its operations depend mostly on farebox revenue and contributions from San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, the three member agencies that make up the Joint Powers Board.  It’s no small problem, then, that San Mateo has suggested it may reduce its contribution by 70%, which would trigger corresponding reductions from San Francisco and Santa Clara.  The end result, if that were to happen?  A roughly $30 million budget deficit off of a $97 million budget.  Caltrain has indicated that balancing the budget under those circumstances might require cutting all off-peak service — midday, nights, and weekends — by no later than June 2011.

It hardly needs to be said that this would be a fundamental change for the worst.  It would reduce rail service on this corridor to bare commuter operations, while decimating the utility of Caltrain for transit-dependent and recreational off-peak riders.  If such a deep service cut were approved, it would be a giant leap backwards, in the exact opposite direction from where Caltrain should be headed as it moves toward electrification.

It is not yet clear whether the situation will actually turn out to be that bad.  So far, all we have had to go on  is Mike Scanlon’s initial doomsday pronouncement at the April 1 JPB meeting.  Clearly, though, there will be an important discussion in the near future about Caltrain’s upcoming budget and the viability of its service.  In some sense, Caltrain has so far held on surprisingly well under the circumstances, since it was able to deflect an unpopular cut to weekend service when closing a $10.1 million budget deficit for this fiscal year.  But ridership has decreased as compared to last year, so there is reluctance to further depress ridership by increasing fares — and even a steep fare hike would not be nearly enough to close a $30 million deficit.  State funding, restored by the gas tax swap legislation, would also not be enough, providing Caltrain with just $5.1 million for this fiscal year and $4.5 million in FY12.  With the JPB’s three member agencies threatening to turn inward and reduce their financial support to Caltrain in these tough economic times, there are limited options available under the current governance scheme that would ensure Caltrain’s long-term financial sustainability.

Passenger rail on the Peninsula was almost laid to rest in the 1970s, but was ultimately saved.  It could be saved again (though the threat now does not look that severe).  But is there the political will to make the necessary changes?  Caltrain has come a long way even with minimal means, but it has been subject to the whimsy of its member agencies, who have other priorities.  Meanwhile, the progress that has been made on electrification has been sluggish, even though electrification points the way toward the promise of the future.  Since introducing Baby Bullet service, Caltrain has assumed a more prominent role in the Bay Area’s regional rail network, but it has outgrown its existing, primitive method of financing.  It is worthy of a three-county special district, along the lines of the BART district.  By reconstituting as a special district, Caltrain would be granted valuable taxing authority and dedicated funding.  Making this change will not be easy, because it requires enactment at the State level — but doing so would give Caltrain access to tax revenue, while ensuring the security of future service.



14 thoughts on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

  1. Can you provide any more info on the grounds for the CEQA lawsuit? Is it motivated by the NIMBY’s urge to just block any and all rail-related development projects on the peninsula?

    – J

    Posted by bikeculturetheory | 5 April 2010, 8:46 am
  2. My bad, I accidentally left out the link for that. One of the Examiner blogs who was able to attend the meeting described the public comment that was offered. The CEQA point, according to the post, is that PCL/Gary Patton want the environmental document recirculated to give the public an updated opportunity to comment:–Board–delays-approval-of-Electrification-Environmental-Report

    Posted by Eric | 5 April 2010, 9:09 am
  3. Thanks. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this.

    I’m a somewhat regular Caltrain rider. My typical pattern is 2-3 days per week from SF to my office in Sunnyvale/Mountain View (we’re very near the city limit), plus a weekend trip or two most months from SF to SJ for Sharks games. At least 1 commute night per week I usually stay late either to get work done or to meet friends or attend a Sharks game. So I think you can see how badly these service cuts would affect me.

    I started riding Caltrain regularly when baby bullet service was inaugurated. At first, I tried it out a few times, but I quickly realized that even though it didn’t save me any time, it did save me a bunch of stress. The difference in arriving at work after having read for an hour as compared to having driven in unpredictable traffic was amazing.

    If they cut out all non-commute service, I’ll be forced to start driving again. I have so far managed to limit my driving to once or twice a month with a combination of telecommuting and planning my errands carefully.

    The maddening thing is that electrification will most benefit local service by allowing trains to get up to speed more quickly after a station stop. But most (all?) purely local service would be axed under the most drastic cuts proposed. Sigh.

    Posted by makfan | 5 April 2010, 10:04 am
  4. One last point: if Caltrain severely cuts service, it will of course siphon off riders from MUNI, SamTrans and VTA. I ride MUNI and VTA on each end of my Caltrain trips, so they can kiss that farebox money goodbye once I go back to driving most of the time. I certainly won’t be buying any more passes and I’ll be down to just a small eCash with autoload on my Translink card which currently has multiple 8-ride passes and such.

    Posted by makfan | 5 April 2010, 10:07 am
  5. Off peak Caltrain service is a lifeblood for Stanford students without cars. They’re already ripped off (transit-wise) compared to UC Berkeley’s frequent BART service, but with no off peak Caltrain, it’d be a two hour ride on the KX to get to San Francisco. It’d certainly greatly inconvenience me when I’m trying to go to Palo Alto without a long, unpredictable drive.

    Posted by Karl | 5 April 2010, 11:06 am
  6. This is just classic. Caltrain is readying for electrification, expanding bike space, and generally giving riders what they need. Must be time for transit sabotage else how can we get people back into their Hummers? AB32 mandates reducing GHG; that is auto pollution, no?

    Posted by david vartanoff | 5 April 2010, 12:22 pm
  7. Could it be possible for Caltrain to pull together the necessary state and local procedures to come up with a dedicated funding source in 14 months? It seems like if they were to act fast, they could get some sort of sales tax or property tax measure on the ballot in that timeframe, not sure the state hoops they’d have to jump through though.

    Posted by Daniel | 5 April 2010, 10:24 pm
  8. I imagine that by the time the plans are carried out, and electrification, grade separation and an extension to the transbay terminal are completed, it will all result in significantly higher ridership (speed + downtown + high profile project + HSR connection) and more service will happen. But that’s years away.

    Posted by Alexei | 6 April 2010, 2:01 am
  9. It seems like San Mateo County in general is completely disinterested in public transit. From opting out of BART to leading the opposition to high speed rail, you can always count on these shenanigans from the Peninsula.

    I guess the monied suburbanites down there are afraid to be linked in with the rest of the Bay Area. The horrors that would cause…

    Posted by Danny J | 6 April 2010, 9:21 am
  10. You said it, Danny. CalTrain doesn’t need a new funding source, it needs a new route–one that steers clear the counties on the peninsula and their aggressive anti-growth policies.

    Make the trains run on electricity or leftover chow mein; they still won’t be economically feasible as long as the population is small and dispersed.

    Posted by Jim K | 7 April 2010, 9:18 pm
  11. There’s a real attitude of “I don’t need this so why the heck should I pay a penny to support it” in this country.

    Posted by makfan | 7 April 2010, 10:55 pm
  12. Say we did a 3 county sales tax initiative to fully fund Caltrain, what are we talking about? Seems like if Santa Clara County alone is able to fund a multi-billion dollar BART extension, a 3 county sales tax should only need .1% or less, and would provide more funding than Caltrain would even know what to do with it.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 8 April 2010, 2:15 pm
  13. Eric, this is somewhat related to this thread and is a blog post suggestion. With alot of transit blogs covering LA’s 30/10 proposal, it makes me wonder, if the Bay Area had a 30/10 proposal, what would that look like? It would make for an interesting conversation.

    Posted by Joel | 22 April 2010, 5:43 pm
  14. I’m not sure they even deserve it. CalTrain’s management has utterly failed to protect their interests with regard to the DTX/TTC and HSR projects. It may just be better off if it got folded into BART, giving it more political clout and funding from that structure, and providing some badly needed rail operator consolidation in the Bay Area. To be sure BART is incompetent, and a bull in a china shop. But they protect their interests and get things done, however poorly and at insane costs.

    @Danny J

    That’s off-base. San Mateo County is the reason CalTrain still exists. They lead the effort to acquire it from Southern Pacific, and fronted the money to do it. They even bought the Dumbarton Rail Bridge to restore transbay service. They opted out of BART decades ago because its costs were insane even back then, and they had already functional, superior service from SP that didn’t cost them anything. Why buy the cow when the milk is free?

    @Jim K

    Anti-development/growth policies are hardly exclusive to the Peninsula. It exists in the entire Bay Area. That said, CalTrain would work well if it were upgraded into a proper modern electric passenger rail system.


    While we’ve had various regional measures for transit, it’s never been anything big like LA just did. We don’t really have anything like Measure R ($30-40B over 30 yrs?) in the Bay Area, so there is nothing to accelerated into a 10 yr timeframe. Maybe if we get some rail consolidation, and political will to upgrade and integrate the regional rail system, we can raise the taxes to do it.

    Posted by Samsonian | 29 April 2010, 4:29 am

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