Caltrain board declares fiscal emergency

Cuts could close up to seven stations between San Jose and San Francisco by July

By Sue Dremann

and Bay City News Service

Caltrain's board of directors declared a fiscal emergency Thursday (March 3) after hundreds of riders packed SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos and asked members not to cut services.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which governs Caltrain, declared the emergency so directors could consider "radical" solutions and close a $30 million budget deficit Caltrain faces over the coming year, Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon said.

The declaration gives the board a greater ability to make drastic service changes and cuts to keep its operating budget afloat in the 2012 fiscal year.

The board's vote came after hundreds of people who packed the meeting had already left. Many warned transportation officials that cutting service would run the risk of losing riders permanently.

The audience overflowed the auditorium into a second room, and a long line of speakers stretched down the aisle.

Caltrain officials have been warning for months that the rail line faces a $30 million operations deficit on a $100 million budget due to major subsidy cuts from its three contributing transportation agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency. The three agencies fund nearly 40 percent of Caltrain's operating budget but face financial problems of their own due to state-funding cuts, officials said.

The fiscal crisis began after SamTrans, which faces a $50 million deficit, announced it would cut its contribution to the rail line from $14.7 million to $4.8 million. The two other agencies likewise would make proportional cuts: VTA would reduce its share from $14.1 million to $4.6 million and San Francisco would drop from $6.2 million to $2 million for fiscal year 2012, according to a Caltrain staff report.

Cuts to the 147-year-old passenger-rail line could include ending train service south of San Jose's Diridon Station, ending service at as many as seven out of 10 stations, dropping the number of weekday trains from 86 to 48 and ending all daytime, evening, weekend and special-event service except for peak commuter times, the board has warned.

But residents urged the board to consider several alternatives, including taking $5.5 million earmarked for the Dumbarton Rail project, selling excess rail property, deferring electrification and using some capital funds for Caltrain operations and raising fares and parking fees.

The VTA board of directors was expected to vote on Thursday night, after the Weekly's press deadline, whether to support some of these proposals and to offer to pay SamTrans $7.1 million it owes the agency, provided the funds will go to Caltrain.

Residents from as far away as Monterey said they rely on Caltrain for service that links them to the Peninsula. Students from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose said they travel from as far south as San Juan Bautista (south of Gilroy) and as far north as San Francisco to get to school. With two parents working, many students rely on financial aid and don't have any way to get to school other than Caltrain, they said.

"The train is the largest and most efficient carpool," sophomore Jack Morris said.

Other meeting attendees said their housing choices were contingent on the train service.

"I live within spitting distance of the Tamien station. We moved there because we knew they were opening up that station," Victoria Carmona, a San Jose resident, said.

Residents asked the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board members, who govern Caltrain, to preserve even minimal service to each station.

"By eliminating service, you will lose ridership and reduce the return of public and private TOD (transit-oriented development) investment," Don Rosenblatt, a Palo Alto resident who lives near the Caltrain station, said. Ironically, crews were working on Thursday on improvements to the San Antonio station -- one that is planned for cuts, he said.

City officials and residents from up and down the Peninsula echoed his sentiment, saying that many city development plans for higher-density housing and residential and retail mixed-use development had been driven by the expectation that Caltrain service would be available.

Transit-oriented development in the general plan for the City of San Bruno includes 1,600 homes and a million square feet of office space -- some of which would be above the train station, Aaron Aknin, community development director, said.

In October, the Burlingame City Council approved a downtown-specific plan that would have to be scrapped if the city rail stop ends up on the chopping block, Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said.

Palo Alto is also encouraging transit-oriented developments near Caltrain stations. The city recently approved a senior-housing development on Alma Street, near the downtown station. Planning officials are also revising the zoning designations near the California Avenue Caltrain station in hopes of attracting more mixed-use and residential developments to the area. Easy access to transit is a critical component of the California Avenue "concept plan."

Several residents who have developmental and physical disabilities also said the cuts would harm their ability to travel and maintain independence.

Angel Wiley, who advocated on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, said many people with disabilities live in the federally subsidized Horizon Apartments near the Belmont station, which is also being considered for cuts.

"The location for this housing was chosen because it is close to the train," she said.

"This is an economic- and social-justice issue," said Sue Digre, a Pacifica City Council member and advocate for family-support services at Parca, a Burlingame-based advocacy and housing organization for people with developmental and other disabilities. "These are folks who have no recourse. They are people who need service seven days a week. For them, this is it," she said of Caltrain.

Board members will decide April 7 which cuts could be made.

If cuts are made, service could be reduced by July 1, members said.

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