Viewpoint - November 17, 2010

Guest opinion: Rail foes: Don't forget about Caltrain

by Steve Schmidt

It's been approximately two years since the battle against high-speed rail began.

Opponents have worked diligently to expose the rail authority's suspicious ridership numbers and financial plans. Legal battles have been waged, some partially won, others dismissed or lost. Decision-makers in Washington, D.C., heard the rumble of discontent and sent the project to the Central Valley, and with it the jobs and the federal funding.

In the waste pile left behind is Caltrain, our dependable link between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. Every weekday, 40,000 commuters rely on this system. That's 40,000 fewer people in cars on our roads. On Nov. 3, Caltrain once again was there to carry an extra 30,000 baseball fans to and from San Francisco to celebrate the Giants winning the World Series.

Without the improvements provided by high-speed rail, we are left with the problems that have plagued the neighbors along the tracks: loud diesel engines, blaring horns, and air pollution as well as the tragic deaths from grade-crossing accidents and suicides.

While the Civil War was still being fought in 1865, the mainline between San Francisco and the Peninsula was completed on what is now Caltrain's right-of-way. Towns cropped up around the rail stations and invited the founding of Stanford University in 1885. After 145 years of operation, we might now be witnessing and sadly even participating in the demise of Caltrain.

A group of Peninsula leaders have formed an organization, Friends of Caltrain, to address the need for a dedicated source of funding specifically for Caltrain operations. An anticipated annual operating deficit of up to $30 million is due to declining sales tax revenues, increasing operating expenses, and competing primary obligations of the agencies that provide the funding for Caltrain: San Francisco Muni, Samtrans and VTA.

The vocal opponents to high-speed rail are now demanding that the Friends of Caltrain denounce, renounce and repudiate high-speed rail and any agreements that have been made between Caltrain and HSR. I am asking the anti-high-speed rail insurgents to stop their attacks and join us in saving Caltrain. I refuse to believe that these opponents have all along wanted Caltrain to curtail service or even stop running.

A reliable source of Caltrain operating money as advocated by Friends of Caltrain is needed regardless of the fate of high-speed rail or its relationship with Caltrain. It is time for San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara County residents to stand up for the system that connects the region and enables us to live, work and enjoy life in this remarkable sprawl-free environment. Let's keep Caltrain rolling!

Friends of Caltrain is planning a Summit on Jan. 29, 2011. Prominent elected officials, transit experts, and community advocates will be exploring all ideas for sustaining and improving Caltrain's service to the Peninsula and Silicon Valley. Stay tuned for details, time and place.

Steve Schmidt is a former mayor of Menlo Park who served on the Joint Powers Board, the organization that manages Caltrain.


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