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Caltrain board reluctant to cut bullet trains

Faced with potential loss of service, Caltrain board urges staff to come up with $3.5 million

Caltrain's Baby Bullet trains, which have been credited with boosting Caltrain's ridership since 2005, could stop running July 1 in order to close a projected $30 million deficit in the agency's fiscal year 2012 budget, Caltrain staff proposed this week.

But the rail line's governing board, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, urged the agency's staff Thursday to find another $3.5 million to save the Baby Bullet service and preserve the current 86-train weekly schedule.

Caltrain has faced a daunting and financially precarious future for several months. On March 3, the board declared a fiscal emergency for the third year in a row after Caltrain's partner agencies -- San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency -- expressed doubt that they would be able to fund Caltrain to the degree they have in the past.

Caltrain staff warned that, as a result, no trains would run during weekends and weeknights, service south of San Jose would end, and up to seven Peninsula stations would close.

On Monday, the three partner agencies along with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission hammered together an eleventh-hour proposal to close only three stations and eliminate 10 train runs per week. In addition, 12 stations would close on the weekends.

The $97 million in revenues would come from fares ($47.4 million), partner agencies ($25.3 million), parking fees ($2.8 million), shuttle service ($1.1 million), rental income ($1.8 million), AB434 and grants ($6.7 million), other income ($2.9 million), and other sources ($9 million), according to agency staff.

The proposed budget includes increases in fares and parking fees, as well as reductions in staffing, according to Caltrain.

But board members were not satisfied that the proposed 76-train weekly schedule was the best the agency could offer.

Board member Adrienne Tissier, a San Mateo County supervisor and chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, made a motion Thursday to delay voting on the proposed budget till April 21 to give staff time to find an additional $3.5 million to preserve the current 86-train schedule, including Baby Bullet service.

"For $3.5 million, we can bring all of those trips back. I will not support cutting the Baby Bullet or those three stations. We have been able to craft almost all of it," a frustrated Tissier said.

"The system is not broken, but we're looking today to break it. It is a model for a system that runs beautifully," Tissier said.

Possible funding sources could include a right-of-way repayment to SamTrans from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority; funds allocated for electrification and the Dumbarton Rail Corridor; and regional money from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for maintenance that could be converted to operating funds, a Caltrain press release stated.

Board member Liz Kniss, a Santa Clara County supervisor, seconded the motion, which passed 9-0.

She contrasted taking the train with driving a car.

"This is a habit when one gets used to it. It's that kind of habit we want to encourage people to have," she said.

Other board members said the idea of making any cuts puts their stomachs in knots.

They said they did not want to jeopardize the existing system for short-term savings that might cause a greater budget gap in 2013. Furthermore, the board may ask the public in the future to approve a dedicated funding source for Caltrain, and their case for supporting the rail line would be hampered without a robust and viable system.

Caltrain Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey estimated that 1,000 riders could stop taking the train each weekend due to scaled-back service.

A recent annual ridership count showed Caltrain customers using the rail service at an all-time high. The count, conducted in February, revealed average weekday ridership at 41,442, an increase of nearly 13 percent over last year.

Some members of the public who addressed the board Thursday said they wanted the agency to devise a sustainable budget now.

But Kniss tried to soften those expectations, saying that all levels of government have had to find band-aids in the current economic climate.

"I don't think there is a sustainable budget" right now to build on, she said. Though one-time funding is a concern, it's more important to maintain a viable Caltrain system that can be the building block for a future rail line ringing the bay.

Former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who spearheads the grassroots group Friends of Caltrain, Wednesday morning expressed regret that the Baby Bullet service, which makes either six or eight stops, could be eliminated. The slower "limited express," which stops at 12 or 13 stations, would become commuters' fastest option.

"It's still faster than non-express trains, but it's a significant trade-off. The Baby Bullet is the reason Caltrain saw a skyrocketing of ridership. The savings in time is needed to make the train competitive with driving," she said.

Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn however, said that with the proposed 76-train schedule, all trains during the peak commute will be limited-express trains.

"This will give more riders more choices and may even reduce travel times for some people who are not able to take advantage of the current Baby Bullet service," she said.

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