News

End of the line for Caltrain?

How Silicon Valley could fare if the West's second oldest passenger rail line were to curtail service

Click on top picture to see video. Click on other pictures to enlarge.

By Sue Dremann

Embarcadero Media

The Caltrain advertisement reads like a 1930s luxury-rail travel poster, luring urban sports fans toward a comfortable ride free from traffic jams, long lines, hunts for parking spaces and exorbitant parking fees:

"Caltrain is an Ace for Tennis Fans at the SAP Open. Attendees at the SAP Open can take advantage of Caltrain's convenient service and unmatched proximity to the action on the tennis court," it reads, referring to the station's location across from San Jose's HP Pavilion.

But 25.76 miles up the Peninsula, on Feb. 3, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board told a packed auditorium that such special event, nighttime and weekend Caltrain service could go the way of the steam locomotive by July 2.

Draconian cuts are planned for the 147-year-old passenger-rail line, which is facing a $30 million deficit on a $100 million operating budget due to multi-million-dollar subsidy cuts from San Mateo's, Santa Clara's and San Francisco's transit agencies, which supplied 43 percent of Caltrain's revenues in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years.

The number of weekday trains could drop from 86 to 48; daytime service, except for peak commuter times, would end, and no service would run south of San Jose Diridon station -- not to Gilroy, San Martin or Morgan Hill. Up to seven additional Peninsula stations could close, including Burlingame, Belmont, San Antonio in Mountain View, Lawrence in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, the Caltrain board has warned.

But business and grassroots groups are galvanizing to find short- and long-term solutions to Caltrain's woes. Curtailed Caltrain service would affect everything from jobs and housing to traffic congestion and pollution, they said.

Silicon Valley Leadership Group -- a business and government nonprofit organization that works to address growth, economic health and quality-of-life issues -- and Friends of Caltrain, a grassroots organization that formed last spring, are working on dozens of ideas they hope will produce funding to close the deficit. The groups want to see Caltrain positioned as the engine of a comprehensive 21st-century regional transportation plan, they said.

"Caltrain is central to planning for the Bay Area," said former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is spearheading Friends of Caltrain. With Caltrain and a "reasonable" road system, the area can avoid unnecessary urban sprawl, she added.

Businesses and cities have much riding on Caltrain: Stanford University's proposed medical-center expansion hinges on using public transit to ensure thousands of new employees and their cars don't add more traffic to Palo Alto's streets.

Cities are relying in part on a robust Caltrain to meet state-mandated environmental goals. The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 addresses carbon-dioxide emissions levels, and Senate Bill 375, enacted in 2009, requires regions to develop "sustainable communities" by planning for transportation, land use and housing to reduce traffic and lower greenhouse gases.

And the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a regional collaboration to revitalize the El Camino Real corridor through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, is largely conceived around Caltrain. It champions placing housing and businesses near mass transit, thereby decreasing traffic and making communities more walkable and accessible.

Kishimoto said transportation conundrums such as Caltrain are at the heart of why she entered politics in the early 1990s.

"In Palo Alto at that time, the transportation philosophy was, 'Just get those cars across town as soon as possible.' I saw that if things didn't change, the Peninsula would be gridlocked.

"There is no room to expand (U.S. Highway) 101 unless we double-deck it. Caltrain is essential to the Peninsula's quality of life. Our commute alternative and economic vitality and the three counties must come together to work on solutions," she said.

What might the Peninsula look like if Caltrain service were drastically cut? The predictions are grim.

Nearly 40,000 people ride Caltrain every day, 74 percent of whom are employees commuting to work, according to the rail service.

Losing Caltrain altogether would cripple the regional transportation system and economy, limiting mobility and employment options, said Elizabeth Deakin, U.C. Berkeley professor of city and regional planning.

She estimated that there would be 20,000 more vehicles on the road, and U.S. Highway 101 between the South Bay and San Francisco would need 2.5 more lanes to keep the commute flowing at current levels, she said.

"If Caltrain closed, people would have two pretty undesirable options: sit in their car on a congested highway or cram into an overcrowded bus," Deakin said.

Putting commuters back into cars would increase regional carbon-dioxide emissions by 89,850 metric tons or 198,085,342 pounds annually, according to the Joint Powers Board. Caltrain reduces regional traffic congestion by removing the equivalent of 300 million annual passenger miles.

Bus service is unlikely to make up for diminished Caltrain service. San Mateo County's SamTrans faces a projected 24 percent operating-expenses deficit over a 25-year period ending in 2035, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's report, "Transportation 2035."

The numbers could go even higher.

"Declining sales-tax revenues have become a major structural problem for VTA," the agency noted in its short-range operations forecast through 2019. Revenue will drop from $140 million in 2009 to roughly $115 million in 2011-12 and is expected to remain flat or in slight decline to a little more than $100 million through 2019.

SamTrans is likely to slash service by half in three years if its deficit is not contained, Mike Scanlon, San Mateo County Transit District CEO and Caltrain executive director, said at the Joint Powers Board's Feb. 3 meeting.

Meanwhile, VTA projects its funds to decline by 24 percent, citing less funding from sales taxes and Measure A, Santa Clara County's 1996 Transportation Improvement Program, which is funded from a 1/2-cent general sales-tax increase. Keeping services at current levels would depend in part on annual state transit-assistance funds to return in fiscal year 2012, according to the MTC report. But transportation officials and local state legislators have said state funds might not return for four to five years due to California's budget deficit.

"It's hard to say. We're more skeptical than optimistic. We hope," VTA Chairwoman Margaret Abe-Koba said.

Shrinking Caltrain services could have a drastic effect on Silicon Valley businesses.

Dan McCoy, associate director of transportation at Genentech, told Leadership Group members on Jan. 21 that Caltrain is a key element of Silicon Valley corporate planning.

"We're trying to get as many people to work without cars as possible. Caltrain is an essential piece of our recruitment and retention. Three hundred to 400 employees use Caltrain every day," he said.

The full traffic impact of losing Caltrain won't be realized in the current economic downturn, but that will change, he said.

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

Caltrain reductions could also cause problems for Stanford University.

Stanford's General Use Permit requires the university to keep the amount of traffic the same during peak hours, regardless of new development and new employees.

"Caltrain ridership has been a key component of the university's success in the last decade in controlling peak-hour commute trips," spokeswoman Jean McCown said.

The Stanford University Medical Center is banking on Caltrain to help it reach a goal of having 35.1 percent of its employees use alternate forms of transportation, as a condition for gaining the City of Palo Alto's approval of the hospitals' proposed expansion.

If the hospital can't reach the goal by 2025, it would pay the City of Palo Alto $4 million. The one-time amount would allow the city to invest in its own programs for achieving citywide traffic reduction, McCown said.

If Caltrain's commute-hour trains continue to run, "there may not be a significant effect on continuing to achieve Stanford's transportation goals," she said. "However, we don't know what the effect may be on Stanford employees if Caltrain closes certain stations."

Under the hospital's proposed expansion plan, up to 9,000 GO Passes for hospital workers to use Caltrain would be purchased. The GO Passes allow employees to ride the train at no cost during commutes. Stanford would also add four additional Marguerite shuttles to link with train commuters.

About 19 percent of Stanford University employees use Caltrain, McCown said. "Stanford presently funds more than 50 percent of the GO Pass program at an annual cost of almost $1.6 million. To our knowledge, this is the largest financial commitment to Caltrain from the private sector."

From the Stanford Research Park, 51,388 riders used the Marguerite shuttle in 2010 to go to and from Caltrain, according to Brodie Hamilton, Stanford's director of parking and transportation services.

Jim Bigelow, Bay Area Transportation and Housing Associates, a Belmont-based consulting firm, predicted that companies would increase their private shuttle services for employees as Caltrain services are cut and stations are closed.

Employees who don't work 9-to-5 shifts would also need to arrange for new transportation, should Caltrain only run trains during peak commute hours, he said.

The Peninsula's land-use patterns depend on having a financially self-sustaining, well-functioning transit system, said Jessica Zenk, director of transportation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

"I don't have a crystal ball about what the geography of our growth will look like. But we can grow smartly or we can sprawl. We want to encourage compact development in strategic places. That builds a very different transport system than a very dispersed, car-oriented system," she said.

"Our best hope for growing sustainably is completely hampered (by Caltrain's service cuts). Nothing really replaces that if Caltrain goes away," she said.

Cities throughout the Bay Area, Palo Alto included, face pressure from Association of Bay Area Government to plan for new housing to meet projected population growth. Palo Alto would need to build 2,860 housing units by 2014.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is considered essential by the region's city governments to achieving those goals.

Without Caltrain, "you are talking about taking the 'T' out of the TOD. That deeply frustrates and angers mayors. For 20 years, we were encouraged to build around Caltrain. It betrays the trust (the mayors) had in Caltrain's future. It puts in danger the investment developers put into TOD. And it undermines the political capital that city council members and mayors put on the table in championing walkable communities," Kishimoto said.

From a commercial point of view, diminishing Caltrain lowers the value of real estate, which lowers property taxes cities get from new developments, according to Tony Carrasco, Palo Alto architect and Friends of Caltrain member.

In San Mateo County, cities have received millions of dollars in incentives for transit-oriented developments through the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County. Mixed-use developments of 40 units or more that are within a half-mile of the train or a transit hub net $2,000 per unit for city transportation projects, Bigelow said. That money can be used flexibly for sprucing up neighborhood landscaping, adding lighting or fixing potholes.

The City of San Mateo received $750,000 for a 218-unit project near Caltrain. The same project applied for a similar grant through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. From both grants, the city netted a total $1.2 million, he said.

"That is repeated up and down the county," Bigelow said. "Redwood City did a similar project. You don't have to use general-fund money."

Carrasco made a longer-term argument for keeping and expanding Caltrain.

Higher density housing leads to residents walking more to grocery stores, movies and doctors' appointments, he said.

"That will be the issue for many Baby Boomers. On the flip side, younger people want to live in closer proximity to where they can walk to entertainment. Those lifestyle needs won't change because Caltrain goes away," he said.

Related stories:

Lack of dedicated funding source major factor in Caltrain's woes

Is this any way to run a railroad?

'Saving' Caltrain

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Where does the money go? How much of it gets funneled into sweetheart deals to the transportation-industrial complex? How much of it goes to pay for ridiculous and unsustainable pay and benefits for union workers and administrators?


Like this comment
Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Henry Riggs is a registered user.

Mr Davis asked a good question. It should be simple math - I've read that more than 50% of CalTrain annual cost is personnel; what happens to that cost if employees pay for their own pensions? What happens if management takes a 10% pay cut? If workers take a 5% pay cut?

If the issue is the very survival of CalTrain, as both management and "friends" report, would employees accept the reductions in lieu of "draconian" reductions in service? Why isn't this in the discussion about CalTrain survival, instead of just new taxes?


Like this comment
Posted by Warning Bells
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Good grief. Something is drastically wrong when commuter rail is in danger of extinction but the Feds are going to spend billions to build a high-speed rail system. If regular daily ridership can't sustain Caltrain, how in heaven's name will HSR ever make it??? Once we invest the outrageous level of tax dollars necessary to build it how can it be sustained? Lifetime government support? $1,000 a ticket? Let's put some of those federal dollars where they will make the biggest difference and run the trains that really benefit the environment and the economy. Save Caltrain now.


Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Constantly increasing fares and unreliable service have led to the mess that CalTrain is in right now. CalTrain's solution to their money problems is always "raise the fares and reduce service" rather than thinking of other solutions like the ones Henry mentions above.

So many transportation problems would have been solved if the NIMBY folks in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties would have allowed BART to be built in a truly "Bay Area" Rapid Transit (not just East Bay and SF). They could have ripped up the CalTrain lines and built a true circle around the Bay.


Like this comment
Posted by Henry Fox
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Before asking for any taxes, let's put the entire CalTrain operation out for bid--allowing non-union employers, domestic or foreign firms.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Shrink it to a M-F commute line, and make it profitable. Then we can discuss other alternative run times. One issue with Caltrain, is that they are using the same outdated equipment to serve two distinctly different markets, on-peak and off-peak. this is wasting millions in fuel cost, extra personnel, etc.

A better solution, would be to run the large 5-car locomotive train sets for peak commute demand (where the trains are actaully full), and a smaller trolley car style DMU car, for off-peak. This would more efficiently server all stations, and the lower passenger load.

Bottom line, adjust to demand like any other successful business. Fyi, ROI would pay for this equipment in five years.


Like this comment
Posted by Alice H. Hansen
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm

As one writer asked in a letter to the San Jose Mercury News last week, 'If we can't make Caltrain work, what makes you think that high speed rail will?'


Like this comment
Posted by E, Moritz
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Dear Mr. Scanlon and friends,

It's clear you are playing a game of liars poker. Scare the public and demand they pony up MORE taxes for the services they are already paying for...... but it's never enough to keep you and your fellow employees in the life style you've become accustomed to.

I for one am ready to call your bluff. I would hope your board of directors, our elected officials, are ready to call your bluff too. SHUT IT DOWN!! The board should announce it will commence an orderly closure of CalTrain during the next 12 or 18 months. During that time they should solicit bids from private sector investors. Promise the bidders they would continue to receive the CURRENT level SUBSIDY and access to the right-of-way agreement with the Union Pacific.

Oh yes! And the board should also immediately terminate your use of the house you get as part of your compensation.

Public servants who have forgotten who the system is suppose to work for need to be replaced. You were hired to run a railroad, not create a scheme for income transfer.


Like this comment
Posted by Nancy W.
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Maybe it's best for the Peninsula if CalTrain goes belly up. That way the so called 'High Speed" train - which is just going to be a newer electric train, servicing most of the same communities - can take it's place. The plan to run a separate set of tracks next to CalTrain was such a bad idea. Let the High Speed train take the place of CalTrain, no additional land needed, no tunnels, elevated tracks, etc. This High Speed train is essentially a commuter train with all the proposed stops, the demise of CalTrain isn't really such a bad thing and was inevitable with the coming of the newer and more efficient electric "High Speed" train.


Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Nancy says:

"This High Speed train is essentially a commuter train with all the proposed stops"

What are the proposed stops in San Mateo County?


Like this comment
Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Feb 14, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Henry Riggs is a registered user.

Regrettably, DMUs cannot operate on the same tracks used by freight trains per federal law. For over ten years, several of us have pressed Feinstein, Pelosi, Boxer et al for updating of the FRA with no response.

As for bidding, the existing equipment and rights of way were bid out - but not as Ned Moritz defined it. The attitude at CalTrain has to change, starting at the top.

As for the HSR fantasy, only one stop is proposed on the peninsula, probably Redwood City.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm

@Henry Riggs

Modern DMUs are FRA-compliant, such as the new Marin County SMART technology. These will work for Caltrain, along with the current freigt traffic.


Like this comment
Posted by PALEEZE
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Not ONE of you is concerned with deficits.


Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2011 at 1:47 am

I can't believe the stupid comments I read here. Rail systems work in Europe for one simple reason. Europeans are willing to pay the gas taxes to subsidize their rail systems. Some suggest Caltrian should make a profit. What nonsense. There is not a passenger rail system in the world that runs without subsidies let alone make a profit. Does anyone think that our freeway system should or can make a profit? Is anyone dumb enough to think our airports exist without subsidies? High speed rail? To most Americans this is some futuristic idea. But in Europe, Japan and China it is commonplace and has been so for decades. Wake up Americans. Every other country is way ahead of us in developing the alternatives to crowded freeways and airports. While they expand their already impressive rail systems we struggle to keep our outdated Caltrain operating. Americans need to get out of America and see how the other 95% live.


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

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