By Jay Thorwaldson
Caltrain's already hard-pressed Peninsula commute service faces a $30 million deficit this year and is planning "drastic" cutbacks in services, Caltrain officials announced Thursday.
A "fiscal emergency" is expected to be declared at Caltrain's governing board meeting on Feb. 3. Caltrain's total annual budget is about $100 million.
The budget-gap announcement came on the eve of two major "save Caltrain" meetings, Friday, Jan. 21, and Saturday, Jan. 29.
The announced crisis underscores the urgency of the meetings. The full scope of the budget gap is not yet known, as it depends on how deeply three transit agencies (San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA and San Francisco transit) cut their subsidies of Caltrain. SamTrans recently announced a $10 million reduction.
The cuts could reduce services involving 48 trains during the weekday commute.
But that's just a start.
"All other service would be eliminated including: weekday service outside the commute peak, weekend service and service south of the San Jose Diridon station," Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.
"The schedule also would require the suspension of service at up to seven stations."
Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said the cutbacks are not in final form, but are "where we are starting" given a bleak financial picture, a $10 million reduction in subsidy by SamTrans, and a continuing lack of a permanent source of funding, such as sales-tax revenues.
Caltrain is the only Bay Area transit agency without such a source of funding, and has already made significant cuts in service and staffing.
The projected $30 million gap is contingent on the other two transit agencies making cutbacks similar to the SamTrans reduction, which reduced its annual contribution by $10 million, to $4.7 million, Simon said.
Caltrain now operates 86 weekday trains, including 22 express trains, with an average ridership of 40,000. On Saturdays there are 32 local trains and four express trains and on Sundays there are 28 local and four express trains.
Simon outlined "aggressive" measures Caltrain has taken in the past three fiscal years:
"Salaries have been frozen. Employees will have taken a total of 17 furlough days from FY09 through FY11. Jan. 1, four weekday trains during the midday were eliminated and fares were increased 25 cents for each zone.
"In an effort to generate additional revenue, a pilot program for weekend Baby Bullet service was introduced."
Caltrain administrative staff costs are just 6.4 percent of its operating budget, below average for comparable commuter rail agencies, he said.
Caltrain is operated by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, a public entity that owns and operates Caltrain.
He said the board is planning two public hearings, one on the proposed service cuts and one to declare a fiscal emergency, at its Feb. 3 meeting. Four community meetings will be held throughout the Caltrain service area on Feb. 17, followed by a formal public hearing on March 3.
"A start date for any service changes has yet to be determined," Simon said.
The two "summit" meetings on saving Caltrain are one Friday from 9 a.m. to noon at Stanford University, sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and a second on Saturday, Jan. 29, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Samtrans Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, sponsored by a multi-community group, "Friends of Caltrain."
The Leadership Group has designated saving Caltrain its number-one regional priority for 2011.
"Caltrain is a critical component of our regional public transportation system, offering an effective alternative to driving on our already congested highways. But it lacks a dedicated source of funding to support its operations," the Leadership Group said in an announcement of the meeting.
The Stanford meeting will be in the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Building, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 366 Galvez St.