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By Sue Dremann
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.