Future of Caltrain rides on stable funding

Jan. 24, 2011, 2:02 a.m.

If Caltrain doesn’t find a stable funding source to offset its $30 million deficit, the commuter transit system could go belly up, transportation and local officials said at Stanford on Friday.

More than 230 attendees convened at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research for a “Save Caltrain” summit to brainstorm solutions for the transit agency’s fiscal problems. Friday’s summit was the first of two such meetings and was sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a network of companies that addresses regional public policy issues.

“Can we imagine if we had no Caltrain?” said Sean Elsbernd, San Francisco Supervisor and Caltrain Joint Powers board of directors chairman. “What would it do to the environment?”

On Thursday, the day before the summit, Caltrain announced that it faced a potential loss of $30 million from its $100 million annual budget if transit agencies cut back their contributions. Caltrain, unlike other regional transit agencies, doesn’t have a stable revenue stream and instead relies on about 34 percent of its funding contributions from its three partner agencies–San Mateo County’s SamTrans, Santa Clara County’s VTA and San Francisco’s transit (MTA), according to initial figures by the MTC’s Transit Sustainability Project. SamTrans is expected to cut its annual contribution to Caltrain by $10 million, and if the two other agencies follow suit, Caltrain faces even deeper cuts.

Given this fiscal outlook, Caltrain is considering slashing its service to 48 weekday trains from 86, cutting weekday service outside of peak hours, axing its weekend service and service south of San Jose’s Diridon Station and suspending service at up to seven stations. If these cuts go through, the more than 38,000 weekday commuters who rely on Caltrain could be left in the lurch.

Panelists at the event weren’t willing to entertain that option.

“None of us want to face the prospect that 12 million riders per year will return to our highways,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, told attendees via a broadcast.

Instead, officials proposed money-making solutions like funneling revenue to Caltrain from a high occupancy/toll lane on Highway 101 and introducing a voter-approved gas tax to prop up Caltrain.

In the last few years, Caltrain has tried different quick-fix solutions to generate more revenue and cut costs, but even these were not enough to pull Caltrain out of its budget woes. Beginning Jan. 1, Caltrain raised fares by 25 cents per zone and cut service for two northbound trains and two southbound trains from its midday schedule. Caltrain also spearheaded a three-month pilot program of weekend “baby bullet” express trains to rake in additional ridership revenue. About 44 percent of Caltrain’s funding this year will come from passenger fares.

State Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, spoke for many when he suggested that merging some of Caltrain’s contributing transportation agencies into one entity could streamline costs.

“We should get rid of some of these organizations,” Beall said. “We need a regional source of funding for a regional agency.”

The elimination of Caltrain would be devastating for both the environment and local communities, said Yoriko Kishimoto, who heads the grassroots coalition Friends of Caltrain.

“Caltrain is at the heart of where the peninsula needs to go,” she said. Our economy, our environment–everything is predicated on a healthy Caltrain.”

Stanford relies heavily on Caltrain to reduce traffic congestion on campus and meet its environmental sustainability goals. In 2010, 19 percent of Stanford employees used Caltrain as their number-one transportation source. In 2010, 52 percent of University employees regularly used some form of alternative transportation, such as transit, bicycling, walking, ride-sharing or telecommuting, compared with an estimated 22 percent within Santa Clara County, according to Parking and Transportation Services.

Other ideas floated at the summit included hikes in traffic-impact fees on new construction, a sales tax increase and a parking-fee increase at Caltrain stations. They also suggested that Caltrain add Wi-Fi service on trains to entice new riders.

Another public meeting on this issue will be hosted by Friends of Caltrain on Jan. 29 at the SamTrans offices in San Carlos.

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