Viewpoint - July 14, 2010

Letter: Counties should step up for Caltrain

As a user of Caltrain, I am very concerned with the lack of commitment and disappointed by the three counties (San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara) in not supporting Caltrain's budget needs.

I hope the Joint Powers Board will rise to the challenge and pursue a dedicated source of funding much like other transit systems. Caltrain is the only system that I know that does not. I think it is time to set up a special district use tax to really ensure the viability of Caltrain and the continued mobility of commuters on the San Francisco Peninsula.

A reduction in service will not serve any useful purpose in the long term, but will drive more people away from using Caltrain and make our freeways more congested.

While I think electrification is an important element in making Caltrain run more efficiently and effectively, one should not wait until that conversion. I think we must lay the groundwork today to bring Caltrain under one fully funded jurisdiction.

Matthew Young, Mountain View


Posted by Take Note, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 15, 2010 at 10:26 am

Thanks Mr. Young
This is exactly what Caltrain needs to do and all three counties should step up now. San Francisco has not put in its share of costs for years and yet San Francisco is the origin and destination of most of the trips. Caltrain should not be the lending source for BART. The negligence that the three counties have paid Caltrain is a travesty.

Posted by transit commuter, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

Caltrain is a superb way to get to San Francisco but it doesn't connect well with other peninsula transit. What we really need is for Caltrain and BART, at a minimum, to get together to help start a true system of transit. Those of us in southern San Mateo County have paid for decades for BART but it doesn't serve us well at all. Think about the gawdawful, ultra-costly connection to the airport that is less convenient for anyone going to or coming from the south than the former shuttle buses. Why can't Caltrain share those taxes, at least those from cities south of BART's termination point.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm

As usual, there are several sides to this story. Caltrain is indeed the victim of the budget slashing that has hit every urban mass transit operator in the US. Actually, it's a political problem. Since all the transit operators function on a deficit basis within which firebox recovery covers only a part of the operating cost, they all need supplementary subsidies on a permanent basis.

However, many of these operators, being subsidized government organizations, have become fat and top-heavy on the personnel side. Like many state, county and local governments, the administration side of the payroll has gotten out of control. They are quick to hire, slow to fire.

Union clout (and I'm a Union supporter) has made the benefits package so costly for most government and government funded entities, that more of the budget services the benefits, often life-time, package and puts the annual operating budget even deeper into the red.

As we all know, Caltrain has used Amtrak as the sole-source contract operators to run its trains. Amtrak is also massively packed with benefits and very high salaries. So, Caltrain, I understand, is shopping for a less expensive rail operator. I would certainly urge maximum effort in that regard.

I'm in favor of salvaging Caltrain, but not under its current management. Here's just one reason. We are being told that electrification will bail them out, at least out of half their structural deficits. That's, how shall I say this, doubtful. They really like the drama of capital development expenditures; big bucks with big results. However, those won't impact their operating budget one damn bit.

Indeed, it was due to their access to capital development funds in the past that contributed to their payroll growth. Then when those projects were complete, they were stuck with more people than they needed. And that's where they are now.

Electrification will accommodate their vanity; i.e., get them their Christmas electric train set, but it will not make them better or more effective urban public mass transit operators. And, lusting for high-speed rail to buy them their shiny new toys constitutes a form of prostitution for them, and great harm to us.

But, that's another discussion.

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