Almanac

Viewpoint - December 1, 2010

Guest opinion: Peninsula rail: clarify the problem.

by Russ Peterson

Steve Schmidt's recent Guest Opinion, "Rail foes: don't forget about Caltrain," starts the entire community down the wrong path.

I say wrong because politicizing the issue and making broad negative generalizations about "those people," will not lead to solving high-speed rail issues nor to solving Caltrain issues. Caltrain's future is dependent on a community solution but as our first priority let's understand the problem(s).

First, we need a little clarity on the seven-year, ongoing high-speed rail-plus-Caltrain discussions. Describing opponents of the existing high-speed rail "plans" as rail foes is wrong. Besides, having to include the state auditor, treasurer, inspector general, legislative analyst's office and the transportation experts at Berkeley/UC Irvine, this also assumes local opponents of high-speed rail are against Caltrain.

I'll admit, people are calling for Caltrain to uncouple themselves from trying to serve the California High-Speed Rail Authority, but that is precisely to engage Caltrain in doing its job. Caltrain has staff that serve two masters — high-speed rail and local commuter service — that's Problem No. 1.

Talk of directing federal dollars to the Peninsula for high-speed rail is merely a front for using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to make good on Caltrain capital improvement projects. State leaders specifically excluded all requests for infrastructure that were not high-speed rail specific. This is just one of many opportunity costs with high-speed rail.

Now, with all the management, environmental, contractual and ridership "issues" Mr. Schmidt is going to blame the messengers for high-speed rail funding going to the Central Valley. Understand that Prop. 1A legally requires the least costly high-speed rail segments to be built first so the feds are following California's law. I did not support Prop 1A, but to the 67 percent of local voters and 52 percent of statewide voters who did support 1A, do we change the law or vote again? — which is Problem No. 2.

A new group, Friends of Caltrain, is launching a series of discussions about securing a steady, reliable source of funding for Caltrain. This is really what Caltrain needs. It is the Caltrain problem. Despite Measure A funds and other sources of transit money, Caltrain service has regularly lost millions of dollars every year it operates. So, we subsidize Caltrain but why do we now face a $30 million hole for next year?

Here's what one Peninsula leader with county government/transit experience said who spoke at the recent Friends of Caltrain meeting in Menlo Park: "SamTrans reduced their funding of Caltrain and then (SF) Muni and VTA (Santa Clara)" decided to reduce their funding of Caltrain, as well. This is the problem Friends of Caltrain and anyone else who wants to see Caltrain live is going to have to solve, operational funding — Problem No. 3.

But key questions remain:

What about capital projects and electrification? You'll hear a lot about better operational efficiency (lose money at a slower rate) but no one is realistically planning to get away from a subsidized commuter service. The fare box return is 40 to 50 percent, which is considered good in the industry, but making up the entire subsidy — you better read the fine print.

Who at SamTrans decided to cut Caltrain funding, putting us into this mess? That would be Mike Scanlon, the executive director of both SamTrans and the Joint Powers Board (Caltrain). Making $400,000 a year and sitting at the head of both organizations, Mr. Scanlon chose to defund Caltrain and then claim Caltrain was in a tailspin and not likely to survive. (See news reports starting in April 2010.)

Not only is Mr. Scanlon conflicted about SamTrans vs. Caltrain — Problem No. 4, but remember he's also conflicted about Caltrain vs. high-speed rail — Problem No. 1.

Why do we create artificial divisions of our transit rather than creating a system to get us where we need and want to go? Recent news reports compared the ramp-up in SamTrans salaries to the amount of services being cut on Caltrain? Deny the connection if you must, but if money is the problem and funding is the solution let's fund what we value, and I suggest more staff is not the answer.

Mr. Schmidt does close with a better tone and focus than where he starts and I, too, hope many will stay tuned to this issue. But let's ask the tough questions, get meaningful reforms at Caltrain, and stay focused on the problem. If we also want to spend on capital improvement, then let's openly discuss options, like a personal rapid transit system, but that avoids the key issue. Stick to funding Caltrain efficiently. That comes first.

Russ Peterson, Felton Gables, Menlo Park

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