Facing the looming possibility that Caltrain could go bankrupt if other means of financing are not found, Friends of Caltrain -- a grassroots group of riders, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and employers -- will hold a community meeting Saturday, Jan. 29, in support of the Peninsula's beleaguered rail line.
Caltrain is facing a $30 million deficit on a $100 million budget in the coming fiscal year. The rail line could cut all service except for peak commuter hours as early as July if additional funding is not found, ending non-peak weekday service, as well as weekend and special-events service.
Seven stations would be closed and service south of San Jose would end, according to Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain. He gave the dire prediction at a Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit held at Stanford University on Jan. 21. He is also scheduled to speak at Saturday's event in San Carlos.
Currently, three transit agencies partially fund the rail service. Forty percent of Caltrain's operating budget comes from San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). Budget cuts and reduced state funding of those agencies have led them to slash their subsidies of Caltrain, according to rail officials.
Fare revenues account for another 43 percent of funding. The remainder comes from a variety of sources that vary from year to year, according to Christine Dunn, Caltrain spokesperson.
Friends of Caltrain wants the rail line to be financed independently and also modernized.
If Caltrain were to shut down entirely or drastically cut service, Friends of Caltrain maintains, the Peninsula would become more congested and polluted, with more than 12 million riders annually getting back in their cars and onto Bay Area freeways. U.S. 101 would need the equivalent of three more lanes of traffic in each direction, said former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is spearheading the group.
"There is no room to expand 101," she said. "Caltrain is essential to the Peninsula's quality of life, our commute alternatives, avoiding freeway gridlock and our economic vitality. The three counties must come together to work on solutions."
Friends members say a dedicated, permanent source of operating funds for Caltrain is needed whether or not a statewide high-speed rail line is built on the Peninsula.
Caltrain should be supported because it is one of the best-performing of the Peninsula's public-transportation alternatives, supporters say. Ridership is up -- it currently serves 40,000 passengers daily -- according to a report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which oversees regional transportation.
Caltrain operations bring in three times the fare revenue per dollar of operating cost of SamTrans and four times that of VTA, according to Friends of Caltrain.
But SamTrans has announced a $10 million reduction to its Caltrain subsidy, citing falling revenues and reduced state funding. Caltrain officials said they expect the other agencies will follow with reduced allocations.
Speakers at the Jan. 21 Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit suggested various ways funding could be established for Caltrain and the agency could be modernized. Ideas included reorganizing and merging the three transit agencies into a regional organization to redistribute funds, creating a dedicated high-occupancy/toll lane on U.S. 101, adding local traffic-impact fees on new construction, approving new taxes, and extending bridge-toll congestion pricing to all Bay Area bridges.
Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel has joined the effort to support Caltrain.
"Caltrain is a vital link in our communities that should not have to beg each year for funding from the three counties it serves. Our rescue plan for Caltrain should be part of a larger transportation vision for the Peninsula based on strong community input and projected future needs," she said.
Other supporting organizations include the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, Rail Passenger Association of California, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee, Palo Alto Community Environmental Action Partnership (CEAP), BayRail Alliance, Sustainable San Mateo County and Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.
The Save Our Caltrain meeting will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at SamTrans Headquarters Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos. It will feature U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, as keynote speakers.
Panel discussions include how Caltrain's current economic model was established; the history and evolution of the rail line; and possible sustainable-funding models. Public input and brainstorming sessions will be part of the day's agenda.
Registration is free but organizers request an RSVP at friendsofcaltrain.com/summit.