'Friends' seek to avert Caltrain demise

Coalition searches for ways to make the rail line financially secure

Without funding to stabilize Caltrain's operating costs, commuters could find themselves without the rail line on the Peninsula for the first time since 1864, when two trains a day carried riders between San Francisco and San Jose.

That's the message a new group, Friends of Caltrain, told nearly 100 people at the Menlo Park Library Tuesday night.

The grassroots coalition of cities, neighborhood groups, employers, environmentalists, transit advocates and residents is seeking ways to find a permanent and dedicated source of operating funds for Caltrain. The commuter service could face a $30 million deficit in 2012, its next fiscal year, said former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is leading the coalition.

Caltrain is facing a tipping point, coalition members said. It lacks funds to either run an existing service so as to keep rider levels up or modernize services so they'd attract and increase ridership and revenues.

Caltrain is operated by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, made up of representatives from three counties: San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco.

The Friends are working on a ballot measure they hope to put before voters in 2012 that would institute a tax to provide a steady source of revenue for Caltrain, Kishimoto said. The rail line also has costly plans for electrification, which would increase the line's efficiency, reduce emissions by up to 90 percent, and attract more riders, coalition members said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in a March 2009 report, found that the regional transit system's long-term viability is at risk and not sustainable, based on current projections of transit costs and anticipated revenues. The report, "Transportation 2035 Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area," outlined how $218 billion in anticipated federal, state and local transportation funds would be spent in the nine-county Bay Area during the next 25 years.

Caltrain has the second highest ticket-sales revenue among 28 transit agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area, Carolyn Clevenger of MTC said.

Caltrain takes in 43 percent through fares, according to preliminary findings by the MTC's Transit Sustainability Project, a follow-up to Transportation 2035.

Nearly 40 percent of Caltrain's funding comes from three other county transit agencies: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans); and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni).

But those agencies are experiencing their own crises due to decreased ridership and budget cuts, officials said.

Caltrain "is just one competitor for the beleaguered general budgets," Kishimoto said.

"We have to look down this frightening cliff and ask ourselves some basic questions: 'Can we imagine life on the Peninsula without Caltrain?'; 'What structural changes should we examine to control long-term costs and increase our ability to deliver more and better service that will attract more riders, not less?'"

Kishimoto and others said the time is ripe to leverage federal stimulus funds.

"If high-speed rail comes, we want to work with representatives to get electrification for Caltrain. The worst nightmare would be for high-speed rail to come with its own independent funding and for Caltrain to go," she said.

But getting joint funding would only be possible if there is an end to the squabbling regarding the California high-speed rail initiative and if there is a common voice on regional transportation planning, coalition members said.

"This is the turning point," Burlingame Vice Mayor Terry Nagel said, after having met with federal representatives earlier Tuesday. "The federal folks are looking for areas that reach consensus."

More than $139 million in federal funds could potentially be part of Caltrain's share if high-speed rail receives federal funding, which would fund a study on electrification, according to the coalition.

Caltrain board member Arthur Lloyd said modernization provides good potential for financial revitalization. That was shown when "baby bullet" trains were added and ridership increased. Ironically, electrification was explored with a number of engines in 1923, but the project halted during the Depression in 1929, he said.

Todd McIntyre, SamTrans community-relations manager, said funding isn't likely to improve from Caltrain's usual funding sources, the other transit agencies. SamTrans eliminated 60 employees during the last fiscal year, he said.

Electrification would help improve financial sustainability by doubling ridership, reducing pollution from trains by up to 90 percent, and allowing for more efficient service. One additional train in each direction could run every peak hour, he said.

If Caltrain does encounter its "worst case scenario" -- the $30 million deficit in 2012 -- train service could be reduced to one an hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and could be eliminated entirely on weekends, he said.

Losing Caltrain could have a much greater regional impact on Bay Area quality of life and economics, Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner Sue Lempert said.

"If Caltrain went out of business, what happens to transit villages along the way?" she asked.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said losing Caltrain would have enormous impacts on Palo Alto and Stanford.

"Stanford as an entity is helping to subsidize Caltrain more than any other entity," he said. Many university employees and workers in Stanford Research Park, including Facebook, use Caltrain, he said.

"We would have great congestion, and the Stanford campus and (proposed) hospital development are hinged upon Caltrain," he said. The primary recommendation for easing traffic congestion as a result of Stanford's planned expansion is the GO Pass from Caltrain, which provides unlimited rides for a year for one price.

The university accounts for 50 percent of Caltrain's GO Passes currently. When the hospital is added, Stanford will account for two-thirds of all Caltrain GO Passes, he said.

The Friends group plans a summit on Jan. 29, 2011, with an official kickoff to include Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Council, among others. A "stakeholder" outreach meeting is planned for spring, with another public outreach meeting for summer or fall 2011.

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Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 11, 2010 at 8:36 am

The Friends of CalTrain should not be supported, nor should any measure to support a ballot measure to support CalTrain be supported so long as CalTrain continues to support running the High Speed Rail line along their corridor.

Making it very simple, if you support CalTrain with their present alliance with the High Speed Rail Authority, you are supporting the High Speed Rail project.

Now that High Speed Rail will not come to the Bay area anytime soon, if ever, CalTrain should wise up, dissolve the MOU agreement with the Authority, and get going on a new business model.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 11, 2010 at 9:11 am

KALW has an audio segment on High Speed Rail with full text which can be found at:

Web Link

It is an excellent listen (about 5 minutes) or read.

Mayor Burt makes two outstanding comments:

Pat Burt: This would be, in a worst-case scenario, an elevated structure. So the entire thing would be over 50 feet in the air, racing through the center of the city at 125 miles an hour with a train every few minutes.

Pat Burt: If we were as voters promised a high-speed rail system, but instead we have a train system that goes back and forth between Fresno and Bakersfield. Is that what we were promised?

The HSR project should be stopped and stopped now.

Friends of CalTrain while working to support support CalTrain are working as well to support the High Speed Rail project.

Morris Brown
Menlo Park

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 9:31 am

Morris Brown's opinion that Caltrain should not be supported is one of the most self serving, short-sighted comments I've ever seen. Don't support a service that serves millions of people each year, keeps 100s of 1000's of cars off the roads, and, in many cases, represents people's sole way to get to work just because he owns property near the rail road track!! I don't care how you feel about HSR-we (all of us on the penninsula and south, MUST SUPPORT CALTRAIN.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 11, 2010 at 9:47 am

Please read my post correctly WhoRUpeople. No support for CalTrain as long they CalTrain support High Speed Rail along their corridor.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 11, 2010 at 10:04 am

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I include many Libertarians and Conservative Republicans among my friends. They oppose the High-Speed Rail project, which is my enemy.

Caltrain and the CHSRA have a Memorandum of Understanding. They are, figuratively speaking, very close friends.

The friend of my enemy is my enemy, and Caltrain is the friend of the CHSRA.

I realize that many of our elected, and hoping-to-get-elected friends hate thinking this way. They would rather be friends with everybody. That may be good for political careers, but it's not good for us who live on the Peninsula or in California.

So, let's begin by establishing that Caltrain, a mismanaged organization that is desperate for high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor, EVEN WITH AN ELEVATED VIADUCT ALIGNMENT, has so far displayed hostility toward the Peninsula residents in their appeal to prevent this elevated structure. Are you with me so far?

There is an emerging group of local and national politicians who have taken it into their heads that Caltrain will disappear if we don't raise taxes to provide them with a subsidy.

How do they know that?

Because $400,000.-a-year salaried Mike Scanlon has told them so? And, if so, what is CEO Mike Scanlon of Caltrain doing about that, as the funds are cut by CEO Mike Scanlon, head of SamTrans?


Because he claims that this will go a long way to bailing them out of their structural deficit?

With that kind of dishonest, if not mindless logic from the CEO Mike Scanlon do we still wish to help with bailout taxes? As it is he is running an overpriced and overstaffed organization.

Think about this for a moment: Caltrain has been hostile to bike riders who want to solve Caltrain's first and last mile problem. Instead of giving bike riders a reduced price ticket and encouraging them, they limit their access to the trains. Is that stupid or what?

Electrification or any other capital development efforts, regardless of how costly, will do nothing for that structural deficit. Read my lips: It's not a hardware problem. It can't get solved with hardware upgrades.

Let me say it again: It is we, the residents of the three-county Peninsula, who should be partners with Caltrain, NOT the CHSRA. However, there should be conditions imposed upon Caltrain for our efforts to save their collective behinds.

We support a tax of some sort for their subsidy at the same time that they separate themselves from the CHSRA and their project on the Caltrain corridor. A Quid Pro Quo.

Any other arrangement is totally unacceptable.

Could we all finally put our wimpy good intentions to rest and get real, please?

A ballot measure for the 2012 elections? Did we learn nothing from the Proposition 1A ballot measure of the 2008 elections? Have our elected officials forgotten about doing some homework and due diligence first, before seeking taxpayers' support for yet another dishonest public project?


Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

Sorry, Martin, I just can't buy in to your argument. I opposed the HSR initiative, and continue to think it isn't the best way to spend money. However, just because Caltrain has a very valid business reason (revenue) for entering in to a MOU with HSR, is no reason to do things that put the viability of that crucial transportation service at risk. Perhaps a better way for you to think about it is, I keep my friends close, and I keep my enemies even closer.

Like this comment
Posted by David Bloom
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

This looks fun! Let me try...

Caltrain is my friend. CHSRA is a friend of Caltrain, and therefore also my friend. Martin Engel is an enemy of the CHSRA, so therefore he is my enemy too.

Did I do it right? Let me know if I got something wrong.

Like this comment
Posted by Daveo
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Thankyou Morris, Martin, David and WhoR. You have very clearly elucidated the issues involved in this topic. After a period of some uncertainty, I am now convinced that I should support both Caltrain and HSR.

Thankyou again. You have been most helpful providing information, especially you, Martin and Morris.

Like this comment
Posted by Dharma
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Supporting a bad economic model is not helpful, whatever you feel about HSR.
Subsidizing an infrastructure element when the source of funds that you already bankroll by paying taxes - including record high property taxes in 2010 - amounts to enabling Sacramento to avoid serious solutions to state employee costs, the eggplant that is eating Chicago.
Enabling Sacramento to maintain the status quo meets Einstein's definition of insanity.
The solution to infrastructure funding - and parks, schools, road maintenance, everything - is to get the budget back in the control of the funders: that would be us. Why would they risk alienating their Union masters if we keep bucking them up?

Like this comment
Posted by D
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Union pacific will be glad if caltrain dies. It can then run freight 24hours a day until the counties create caltrain 2.0 (it has a freight easement).

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Skeptic
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

Cal Train provides a useful service but should be ended because of the rampant corruption and mismanagement. It is a form of highly compensated welfare for inept bureaucrats, most of whom earn more than $150,000 per year in direct salary. When you figure in benefits and retirement contributions, they average well above $200,000 each. They get away with it because they hide salaries in various divisional budgets like SAMTRANS, VTA and Cal Train itself.

Like this comment
Posted by SJR
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 10:18 am

May you Peninsula NIMBY ists choke on the car traffic that will result from your short sighted opposition to rail transit.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 10:37 am

This online report indicates that "Friends of Caltrain" is working on a ballot measure to put before voters in 2012 that would institute a tax to provide a steady source of revenue for Caltrain.

An a taxpayer suffering under an already too-high tax burden in Santa Clara County, I will be the first one to vote “no” on such a proposal. In Santa Clara County we already pay a 30-year half cent sales tax devoted to specified public transit capital improvement projects and operations. This tax was approved by the voters in 2000 and contained the following Caltrain-related items:

1. Improving Caltrain by double-tracking to Gilroy and electrifying from Palo Alto to Gilroy.
2. Increasing the level of Caltrain service.
3. Funding operating and maintenance costs for increased bus, rail and paratransit services.

Unfortunately, the VTA Board has decided to spend all of the proceeds from this tax on the expensive BART-to-SJ extension, despite the fact that we don’t have enough cash to keep our existing transit services, such as Caltrain, running. I suggest that you eliminate talk of more taxes and pressure the VTA Board to fund Caltrain using the existing tax to pay for the above projects that were promised to the voters as part of the 2000 measure A.

Steve Ly
Los Altos

Like this comment
Posted by henry fox
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I think Caltrain is vital to our community. I would support a dedicated tax because every public transit system needs one.

However no one has been able to prove that electrification right now is anything but an added and unnecesary expense. By increasing service we will increase ridership. That is an environmental benefit in and of itself.

show me the cost of electrifying caltrain and prove the cost of running an electrified system saves enough to justify the expense, and I might change my mind.


Like this comment
Posted by CalTrain not BART
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 12, 2010 at 5:19 pm

I would vote to move anything I pay now to BART over to CalTrain. BART has not been supportive at all of south San Mateo County despite us paying into it for decades. What a fiasco the SFO connection is. It is nigh onto impossible to get to SFO and back without wasting a very long time or risking getting stranded because of limited and disjointed service. CalTrain does serve our community, so why not drop BART and shift that over to Cal Train?

I deeply hope there also is a way to disengage Cal Train and HSR, which seems to be a corrupt and extraordinarily wasteful idea for the peninsula. This should be a separate ballot measure.

Like this comment
Posted by Will B
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 20, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Wow, I couldn't agree with CalTrain not BART. They have sucked money from the county of San Mateo for decades with promised that have realized the boondoggle of the Millbrae/SFO BART connection. I hope I'm right when I say people will come to their senses and do the HSR right, tying it into some sense of a cooperative operation with CalTrain. That's my Christmas wish!

Like this comment
Posted by Will B
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 20, 2010 at 9:15 pm

I was so excited to write this paragraph, I left out the most absolute important thing! That is that I couldn't agree with CalTrain not BART more...a refreshing perspective that I think many have forgotten the promises made by BART! Well done.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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