Group seeks to stem Caltrain 'death spiral'

Friends of Caltrain work on short- and long-term solutions

More than 200 Friends of Caltrain met on Saturday (Jan. 29) to find ways to keep the Peninsula railway from going into what one transportation official called "a death spiral" that threatens to shut down the West's second oldest passenger train service.

The coalition of riders, environmentalists, businesses and rail advocates packed SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos, which, because of its own budget woes, has announced it will reduce funding to Caltrain by $10 million.

Caltrain faces a $30 million budget deficit that could bring it close to collapse, officials said. Services could be gutted as early as July. If that happens, night, off-peak, weekend and event trains would end. Only peak commuter times would remain, officials said.

The Caltrain Joint Powers Board is expected to announce a fiscal emergency at its Feb. 3 meeting.

Former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is spearheading the Friends group, asked the standing-room-only crowd to envision the Peninsula without Caltrain.

"Unless we educate ourselves, we may wake up one morning and find that what we take for granted has been taken out from under our feet," she said.

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a keynote speaker, said a collapse would doom drivers to stop-and-go traffic. Transportation officials have estimated that forcing Caltrain's 40,000 weekly riders back on the freeways would be the equivalent of adding three lanes in each direction to U.S. Highway 101.

"You can count on me front and center ... to make a case for it," she said, promising to work with city councils throughout the Bay Area.

But she cautioned that Friends of Caltrain will be fighting an uphill battle. "You've got a big job ahead of you," she said.

Caltrain is the only transit agency in the Bay Area without a dedicated source of funding. While it earns about 47 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, roughly 40 percent of its funding comes from three Peninsula transportation agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA and San Francisco's MTA, and all three are cash strapped, Speier said.

But Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, the other keynote speaker, said grassroots efforts, when done correctly, are highly successful. It's how Yosemite National Park was created and how redwood trees in Northern California were saved, he said.

Speier said the same kind of energy that groups have put into the California high-speed rail project should be put into saving Caltrain.

"The Friends of Caltrain is in a position to truly make a difference," she said. "Let's get to work. There's a vision to create and a train to catch," she said, to applause.

Jessica Zenk, Silicon Valley Leadership Group transportation director, said 80 potential solutions to save Caltrain emerged during a Jan. 21 summit of more than 200 business and government leaders at Stanford University.

Some ideas included bidding out the system to private operators, reforming the three transit agencies into a single regional agency and building a Caltrain fare into sports tickets, she said.

San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Joint Powers Board, admitted that reducing services to plug up the deficit could be the "death spiral" if the result is lower ridership and farebox revenue.

Some riders said Caltrain needs to find a way to add more service, not less, in order to make rail travel more appealing. Joan Marx, a bicyclist from Palo Alto, said Caltrain should find ways to make travel times that equal or are less than vehicle travel.

Sybil Vasche, an SRI International employee and longtime Caltrain user, said many people cannot afford to live where they work and rely on the trains. Train service could end south of San Jose, Caltrain officials have said. Many people who commute by train from Gilroy will be impacted, Vasche said.

"It will be devastating to a lot of people. We don't want to quit our jobs now. This is not the time to quit," she said.

Jim Bigelow of the Redwood City/San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce said as part of an emergency fix, a $5.5 million subsidy for the Dumbarton rail extension, which would bring rail across the San Francisco Bay to Union City, could be temporarily transferred to Caltrain. The funds are in reserve but the bridge-repair project has been stalled for years.

During a brainstorming session, several people put together short- and long-term funding strategies.

In the immediate term, the group suggested reallocating money from other agencies, having a toll on the Dumbarton Bridge specifically to fund Caltrain, and "congestion pricing" -- charging higher tolls during peak commute hours.

Shirley Ingalls, a former Mountain View transportation commissioner, said Silicon Valley businesses, many of which rely on Caltrain to bring employees into the valley, could be asked to come up with funds to cover the $30 million deficit, even if it is just a loan.

Chuck Harvey, Caltrain deputy CEO, said during a panel discussion that in the long term, modernizing the system will make it efficient and attract more riders. Electrification would reduce costs by 10 to 20 percent, he said.

Modernization has already proven its worth, he said. After the Baby Bullet trains were introduced in 2004, ridership increased 44 percent and farebox revenue went up by nearly 100 percent, he said.

As next steps, Kishimoto said the Silicon Valley Leadership Group plans town hall meetings and is raising $100,000 for polling and financial and economic analyses. And groups within Friends of Caltrain said they will work with Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel on pushing for a regional approach to public transportation.

Nadia Naik, a co-founder of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), said the grassroots effort remains a crucial part of saving Caltrain and of developing any regional solution to transit funding.

"This allows everyone to understand the big issues and people take ownership. There is probably a solution, But the top-down doesn't work. It's got to be from the bottom up," she said.

There was virtually no discussion of the controversial high-speed-rail project that would at present run up the Caltrain right-of-way between San Jose and San Francisco. The two leading design alternatives are surface tracks or an elevated structure. Deep tunneling has been ruled out due to costs, and trenching, with or without a cover, would require contributions from local communities.

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Like this comment
Posted by Tired of paying for others mistakes
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Caltrain published ridership report shows a decline of ridership to a little over 36,000 ( not 40,000 as Ms Speier indicates) Also , why is there an assumption that all will then turn to a car and clog the freeway. Carpooling, buses and cycling are all alternatives. If the the Cal Train Board can not get out of the mess they got themselves into let it go under. Bad management decisions do not warrant a taxpayer bailout. Caltrain is not too big to fail.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Should we let the Bay Bridge fail also because it can't pay for itself with tolls?

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jan 31, 2011 at 7:08 pm

That would be a good idea, Donald, if it truly cannot pay for itself with tolls.

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of paying for others mistakes
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 1, 2011 at 10:41 am

Posted by Donald, a resident of another community, 17 hours ago

Should we let the Bay Bridge fail also because it can't pay for itself with tolls?

Yes. Enough of this out of control spending. Revenues need to cover costs in full or costs cut. The choice is simple either trim cost or raise fares. If you raise fares too much you will most likely reduce usage. That leaves cutting expenses to get in line with revenue. It works, even Jerry Brown is embracing living within our means.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I’ll make this as simple as I can.

We residents and citizens on the Peninsula should support an effective public mass transit commuter service which we need.

However, there has been a lot of mismanagement at Caltrain. Their staff is top-heavy and overpaid. Why should the Caltrain CEO make as much salary as the President of the United States?

Therefore, before we tax ourselves to cover Caltrain’s operating budget subsidies we need to demand they meet certain conditions:

1.We want an independent audit from Caltrain; a complete examination of their books.

2. We also want an independent management consulting firm that specializes in urban and regional mass transit to analyze and assess their organization and management structure, with recommendations for updating, especially for their financing.

3. We want to see a revised strategic plan from Caltrain conceived without high-speed rail participation. Also, especially under the current circumstances, we want a termination of the MOU agreement between Caltrain and the Rail Authority. There's no longer a reason for it.

4. We need them to drop their electrification obsession. DEMUs (see Wikipedia) will do almost the same job as electrification and EMUs, but for a great deal less capital development investment. It's our money and we want it spent wisely.

5. We want a complete restructuring of the non-functional, rubber-stamp JPB. We want elected representation from each and every city on the Caltrain corridor on such an expanded Board. And we want this Board empowered with greater decision-making, accountability and oversight authority.

6. We want a break-up of the several layers and overlapping organizations led by a single CEO. Too many pies, with only one and the same finger in them all. It reeks of multiple conflicts of interest. (Mike Scanlon, Executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority and as the general manager/CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District. CEO of Caltrain. Board chair for the American Public Transportation Association.) That's a shell game and conflict of interest.

7. We want an airtight Caltrain agreement that they will not admit any other rail operators (besides UPRR and themselves) on the rail corridor without the concurrence of ALL the corridor cities.

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

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