Merge transit agencies, Caltrain summit told

Regional reorganization seen as key to reviving, saving Caltrain and providing better, more efficient service

By Sue Dremann

Embarcadero Media

Local transportation agencies should be merged and their funds used to support a regional transit agency, state Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said at the Save Caltrain summit at Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research on Friday (Jan. 21) morning.

"We should get rid of some of these organizations. We need a regional source of funding for a regional agency," Beall said.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group convened the summit of 230 attendees to press home the urgent need to create independent funding sources for Caltrain or risk losing the Peninsula train service altogether.

Panelists and summit participants came up with a list of ideas to create stable, independent sources of revenue for Caltrain.

There was a crisis atmosphere at the summit that had not existed as intensely at earlier discussions of Caltrain's funding dilemma.

On Thursday, on the eve of the summit, Caltrain announced that it may have to cut $30 million from its $100 million annual budget because of potentially huge cutbacks in subsidies from other transit agencies. That would mean "drastic" cuts in the Peninsula commute service, on top of existing cutbacks.

Caltrain currently must rely on roughly 40 percent of its funding from three metropolitan transit agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA, and San Francisco's transit (MTA), according to preliminary findings by the MTC's Transit Sustainability Project. SamTrans recently announced it plans to cut its subsidy to Caltrain by $10 million.

Merging the cumbersome and perhaps overlapping transportation agencies could help streamline costs and create a regional set of services that are based on ridership strength and uses, participants said.

The irony of Caltrain's dilemma is that its ridership is up compared to the transportation agencies that fund it, Steve Heminger, Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director said.

That's one reason Beall and other summit participants said they think it is time to look at how available dollars are being distributed.

At some point, cutting service could render Caltrain irrelevant, speakers said. The current system is "eating your seed corn," Heminger said of borrowing from other agencies. "Transit needs to be sustainable. Otherwise, you're building around empty shells."

Service cuts to address the shortfall could eliminate all weekday service outside of the commute peak, kill weekend and special-events services such as for Giants and 49ers games, close seven stations out of 23, reduce trains from 86 weekday trips to 48 and end all train service south of San Jose, Caltrain officials said.

"Caltrain is the spine of our transportation system. ... None of us want to face the prospect that 12 million riders per year will return to our highways," U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, said at the summit via a broadcast.

Panel and round-table discussions suggested local traffic-impact fees on new construction, trading carbon credits that businesses can buy to mitigate for their carbon footprint, extending bridge-congestion pricing to other bridges beyond the Bay Bridge.

Dedicating revenue to Caltrain from a high occupancy/toll (HOT) lane on U.S. 101 and a possible voter-approved gas tax increase as ways to generate stable revenue, were among other ideas suggested, officials said.

Participants said incentives could modernize and boost commuter ridership, such as adding WiFi and a business-class rail car to Caltrain.

Beall said tax credits provided through Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, could make it profitable for agencies to clean up the air and investors in public transit could buy the tax or carbon credits and help generate money for Caltrain.

Panelist Elizabeth Deakin, University of California, Berkeley professor of city and regional planning, suggested high-occupancy/toll lanes could have tolls dedicated for public transit, as could peak-hour tolls.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a Bay Area public-transportation advocacy group, suggested turning a lane on U.S. 101 into a high-occupancy/toll lane and creating a low-cost GO Pass program for new residential buildings.

But San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said getting a new tax in the current economic climate would not go over with voters, and it would take years to accomplish.

"Caltrain will be dead by then if we just focus on a tax," he said.

State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, who took part via a broadcast, said a sales-tax increase should be considered. But there would have to be significant organizational changes to show the voters Caltrain would be run efficiently.

Supervisor Liz Kniss of Santa Clara County also cautioned against getting hopes up to retain future state funding.

"The state general fund (for transportation) will evaporate in terms of any funding," she said of the next few years.

Several speakers urged that Caltrain get some of the funding being set aside for the California high-speed-rail project.

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 grassroots coalition Friends of Caltrain, which is spearheaded by former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto.

Few at Friday's summit wanted to step into the quagmire of high-speed rail discussions.

But Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt said "the reality is high-speed rail ... funding, if it ever comes, is a decade away, which makes it not a short- or mid-term solution."

But Palo Alto's "economic vitality and quality of life would be drastically impacted" if Caltrain shut down, he said.

Kishimoto agreed.

"Caltrain is at the heart of where the Peninsula needs to go. Our economy, our environment -- everything is predicated on a healthy Caltrain," she said.

Carl Guardino, Silicon Valley leadership Group's president and CEO, said funding Caltrain needs three strategies: short term, medium term and long term.

In the next four months, the group will be discussing solutions and expects to launch two public-opinion surveys and independent financial studies about each potential strategy.

Panelists said the impacts of losing Caltrain would be felt in the Bay Area for decades.

"It's a choice between Caltrain and building six more (freeway) lanes. Child asthma attacks are one of the most prevalent uses of emergency rooms," Beall said of the health impacts of increased vehicle pollutants.

Cohen said studies show that people who took public transportation in the Bay Area on average spent $5,400 less on transportation than drivers and as a group emitted 42 percent less greenhouse gases.

The Bay Area is relying in part on infill, higher-density housing to solve its residential needs in the next 25 years. A selling point of that housing, and one that many cities are relying on to meet Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) quotas for housing, is nearby access to train service up and down the Peninsula.

Losing Caltrain would have "grave implications" for such residential projects if weekend and night services were cut, Cohen said.

Caltrain is also an essential part of employee recruitment and retention for Bay Area companies, Dan McCoy, associate director of transportation at Genentech, said. Resolving transportation issues are crucial to the future of Bay Area business and regional way of life, he said.

He urged participants to look at the number of vacant buildings along 101, and said an improving economy could fill many of those up.

"We're only one economic recovery from a big, big problem," he said.

But Speier said the problem isn't insurmountable.

"Remember, Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps. No one thought it was possible before. (For) Caltrain, compared to the challenges that faced Hannibal, that's easy."

Related story:

Caltrain faces $30M gap, 'drastic' cutbacks

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Like this comment
Posted by psa188
a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

It's ironic to see the grossly misnamed Silicon Valley "Leadership" Group involved in the effort to save Caltrain. For the past decade or so, this loathsome bunch has been advocating extending BART to San Jose at the expense of just about every other transportation improvement in the south bay. The 2000 Measure A sales tax increase ballot language listed 14 specific projects or project areas which included:

Improving Caltrain by double-tracking to Gilroy and electrifying from Palo Alto to Gilroy.
Increasing the level of Caltrain service.
and connecting Caltrain with the Dumbarton Rail line.

Sadly, these and other promised projects have been sacrificed at the alter of BART, and this group hornswaggled voters into passing yet another BART tax in 2008. (some folks never learn.) Now this group wants YET ANOTHER TAX to bail out Caltrain.

Santa Clara County residents already pay enough in transit tax, most of which goes into one gold-plated, over-designed project that uses the wrong route. The last thing we need in this lousy economy is more taxes.

The suggestion to reduce bureaucracy by combining transit agencies is a good one.

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