With Caltrain considering eliminating half of the peninsula's train service to fix a $30 million deficit, VTA general manager Michael Burns has some proposals to keep Caltrain on track until more permanent funding can be found.
In a Feb. 2 memo to the board of the Valley Transportation Authority Board, Burns says the VTA is now in a financial position that allows it to pay $7.1 million it owes to SamTrans in a previous deal to purchase the land Caltrain tracks sit on. If SamTrans agrees to use that money for Caltrain, it would keep San Francisco and Santa Clara County's transit agencies from drastically cutting back their own proportional level of Caltrain funding, which would reduce the train service's projected deficit from $30 million to only $14 million, Burns said.
The above proposal alone would be enough to "allow Caltrain to retain much of its current service in the short term," Burns writes. But he also says funds should be taken to prop up Caltrain's core service from other delayed Caltrain projects: Caltrain electrification, which has been delayed along with peninsula high speed rail, and $5.5 million for the Dumbarton Rail project. The Dumbarton Rail project is something "the region cannot afford at this time," Burns writes, but using the $5.5 million may pose legal issues.
VTA is also considering the possibility of taking on a larger share of Caltrain's operating costs in exchange for saving service to Santa Clara County.
At the VTA board meeting last Thursday, "the full board was pretty much in consensus that Caltrain is a priority for us," said VTA board chair Margaret Abe-Koga, who is also a Mountain View City Council member. "Maybe we can negotiate keeping service for Santa Clara county folks if we put up our full share or a larger portion of it." The VTA is able to do that because "we worked really hard last year to straighten out our finances."
Caltrain may soon declare a fiscal emergency in March and appears ready to make drastic cuts. It has proposed the elimination of weekend service and service om San Jose to Gilroy. Trains would run only during weekday peak hours, cutting service nearly in half from 86 trains running every weekday to only 48.
A citizen group aiming to save Caltrain, Friends of Caltrain, said on its blog that it agreed with Burns' Caltrain funding proposals, including the idea of selling Caltrain property such as Diridon station in San Jose and using discretionary Metropolitan Transportation Commission funds to prop up Caltrain temporarily. But the group opposed "cannibalizing" Caltrain's electrification funds, which are "key to making Caltrain sustainable long term, enabling Caltrain to serve more riders at lower operating cost."
SamTrans responded to the VTA proposals in a statement by spokesperson Christine Dunne, saying "SamTrans' funding issues were not created by VTA nor are they the VTA's to solve."
"We are willing to look at everything," Dunne said. "Everything is on the table for analysis. We appreciate the continued support of the VTA. We understand that some people think VTA should help cover SamTrans' share of JPB funding. SamTrans' funding issues were not created by VTA nor are they the VTA's to solve. We recognize that VTA has its own commitment to the communities it serves just as SamTrans does. We will continue to work with our partners to find funding that can reduce the impact of the drastic cuts with which Caltrain is faced."
Goodbye San Antonio station?
Service at up to seven stations may have to be eliminated by Caltrain, including Mountain View's San Antonio station, where 545 people board a train every weekday on average, according to Caltrain's 2010 ridership report.
The other stations on the chopping block are College Park, Belmont, Lawrence, Santa Clara, San Bruno, Burlingame, Hayward Park, Bayshore and South San Francisco. Those stations have similar ridership numbers.
At the San Antonio station Monday morning, about a dozen people waited for the 10:33 a.m. train. One rider, Jennifer, lives a few blocks away and boards the train at San Antonio daily for work in San Mateo. "It's convenient that it's walk-able," she said of the station's location, which sits near a large residential neighborhood an San Antonio Shopping Center. If the station were to close, taking the train would be much less attractive than driving because Jennifer would have to find parking spot at the downtown Mountain View train station lot, which is "usually pretty full," she said.
"Having good public transportation system is important," she said. "I enjoy taking the train."
Caltrain ridership overall has climbed from 26,000 riders in 2005 to 39,000 in 2010. It has recently started to decline slightly.
Abe-Koga said drastic cuts could lead to a downward spiral.
"Once you cut service it's just a downward spiral," Abe-Koga said. "If less people ride it, then there is less fare box" revenue for train service.