The board of the Valley Transportation Authority voted unanimously Thursday evening in support of a set of funding strategies that could save Caltrain from slashing service over the next two years.
The five strategies supported by the VTA board identify several temporary funding sources to fill a Caltrain budget gap caused by the ongoing financial problems of San Mateo County's SamTrans.
SamTrans has proposed cutting back its share of funding of Caltrain this year from $14.7 million to $4.8 million after several years of using its own one-time sources.
VTA officials say the cuts by SamTrans would trigger a reduction in matching funds from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Santa Clara County's VTA. While the VTA may be able to afford to take on a larger share of Caltrain's costs, it would be unfair to the county's taxpayers to take on a larger share of the responsibility, VTA officials say.
The result of SamTrans cuts would be a $30 million slashing to the Caltrain budget that many believe could cause a downward spiral for Caltrain with a reduction of weekday service from 86 to 48 trains, the elimination of weekend service, the shuttering of 10 train stations including Mountain View's San Antonio Station and the elimination of service south of San Jose's Diridon Station.
To prevent that, one strategy supported by the VTA board would boost SamTrans with $7 million that VTA would pay SamTrans in a reimbursement for the 1991 purchase of the land Caltrain's tracks sit on, but only if SamTrans agrees to use the funds for Caltrain. Also supported by the board was using funds for the Dumbarton Rail project on an "emergency basis" with permission from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). VTA officials say Dumbarton Rail is years from completion and its $5.5 million in funds sit idle. "Without a viable Caltrain operation, the DB Rail project will have limited to no utility in the corridor," wrote VTA executive policy advisor Jim Lawson in a staff report.
Other strategies would use "significant discretionary regional funds" controlled by the MTC, revenue from the sale of Caltrain property and the use of Caltrain electrification funds from all three Peninsula transportation agencies. That would cause further delays for electrification, already delayed by problems in bringing High Speed Rail to the Caltrain corridor, which would substantially help to fund electrification, Lawson reported.
VTA director Liz Kniss said the ongoing negotiations with SamTrans and the SFMTA are "a chess game at this point." And time appears to be short.
As Caltrain plans to announce cuts on April 7, VTA general manager Michael Burns said "all of this will have to come to a conclusion within 30 days" which means "the answers will have to become fairly well defined within two weeks."
Mountain View council member Margaret Abe-Koga, who is also VTA's board chair, had worked to put the strategies on the board's agenda.
Transit watchdogs praised the proactive stance VTA is taking in proposing the funding strategies. Variations of the strategies may be part of an eventual deal to save Caltrain for two more years, Burns said.