Mountain View Voice

News - May 28, 2010

Who should pick up Caltrain tab?

Council says VTA should step up, but with consequences for northern counties

by Daniel DeBolt

On Tuesday, the Mountain View City Council decided that Santa Clara County needs to step up its Caltrain funding, but not without making San Mateo and San Francisco counties pay for cutting back their support. Riders in those counties should face decreased train service and higher fares, council members said.

Caltrain announced April 1 that it may have to cut train service in half to stay afloat because of declining revenue from various sources.

"This is not an April fool's joke. This is real. We're at a watershed moment where there's a possibility this railroad could go away," Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon told his board of directors.

About 40 percent of Caltrain's $100 million budget comes from transportation agencies in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. SamTrans in San Mateo County has announced that it will be cutting its share by 35 percent. If the other counties follow suit, it would result in $14 million reduction to the Caltrain budget. That, along with declining state funding and fare revenue, would result in major cuts to evening, midday and weekend train service, reported Margaret Abe-Koga, a VTA board member and Mountain View City Council member.

Mountain View's downtown train station is the second most used on the Caltrain line, and on Tuesday, the council felt it was important to weigh in on how the languishing train service is funded.

Mayor Ronit Bryant said, "Letting Caltrain be dismantled is a truly shocking idea."

"It probably benefits Santa Clara County the most," said Council member Mike Kasperzak of Caltrain. "We may well have the most to lose."

Mayor Ronit Bryant said that the city would be writing a letter to the VTA in support of maintaining the agency's current Caltrain funding, but would make clear that there should be some consequences for the two counties to the north for reducing their contributions. Those consequences include reducing service to underused stations in San Francisco and San Mateo Counties and creating what Kasperzak called "fare differentials" — higher prices for train tickets purchased in those counties.

"I believe very strongly that we should get something back if we do this," Abe-Koga said.

Maybe residents would "start putting pressure on SamTrans officials and start saying we really want" Caltrain to be funded, Kasperzak said.

Council members Tom Means and John Inks voted against sending the letter. Both are libertarians who usually oppose government subsidies.

"There are thousands of people on a train everyday and we can't figure out how to make it work?" Means said. "I am not going to support just throwing more money at this."

But Caltrain's financial problems may not be unique. There is no train service in the country that breaks even or turns a profit, said Jim Lawson, a Milpitas City Council member and VTA staff liaison.

SamTrans had originally proposed cutting its contribution by 70 percent, Lawson said, which "came as a great surprise to a lot of people and caused a great deal of consternation."

Lawson said San Francisco's Municipal Transit Agency has also considered cutting its contribution by 70 percent. There seems to be growing support for handing responsibility for the train service back to the state, Lawson said. There has also been talk of asking voters to approve a parcel tax to fund Caltrain. Caltrain director Scanlon, who also runs SamTrans, has said he would like SamTrans to get out of the train business.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by Martin, a resident of Castro City
on May 27, 2010 at 6:01 pm

I don't see a problem with cutting the number of stops in san mateo county by 35%. It would certainly speed up the commute.


Posted by John the man, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Here's the problem: a LOT of the people who use Caltrain are trying to get to or from (wait for it) places in San Mateo or San Francisco counties. Not all of them, maybe not even a majority of them.

But think about it. Caltrain is a commuter train that basically runs through or to only three counties to begin with: SF, Santa Clara, and San Mateo. And it isn't unrealistic to say most Caltrain fares are inter-county; otherwise the trip is short enough that you simply drive.

If you decide to reduce service to two of the three counties that make up Caltrain, what are you also doing? Significantly reducing the utility for people who live in Santa Clara county. That's not a punishment that skips people who live in Santa Clara county, it hurts them, too.

The only real solution is to find an more objective funding source for Caltrain. When the funding decision of one county (San Mateo) can have such a domino-effect on all of Caltrain's funding, that isn't acceptable.


Posted by CC, a resident of Shoreline West
on May 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm

One stop for San Mateo at airport and One stop for SF. This will be the new HSR.


Posted by curious, a resident of Cuesta Park
on May 28, 2010 at 11:28 am

"There is no train service in the country that breaks even or turns a profit, said Jim Lawson, a Milpitas City Council member and VTA staff liaison."

What is it with Liberals and trains?? Somehow they worship them. If people do not want to ride the trains and they can't generate enough revenue to pay for themselves, we should get rid of Caltrain. The world will get along fine without it.

And this certainly bodes poorly for the HCR (high cost railroad). But this is another religious issue with Liberals so reality cannot intrude.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Some commenters have claimed that reducing service to San Francisco and San Mateo County would hurt Santa Clara County commuters. But that isn't necessarily true. Keep in mind that most Caltrain stations in San Mateo County are not major destinations -- they are not near major employment centers or weekend attractions. These stations have few deboardings in the AM and few boardings in the PM because most people using these stations live, not work, near them.

I would eliminate all midday, night, and weekend service from all stations outside of Santa Clara County except for 4th and King (and, for possibly half of the trains, Millbrae). Weekend trains will be much faster if they express through most of the extra stops. This will reduce operations costs, due to fewer operating hours.

The effect of this service reduction would be unfortunate for San Mateo County residents, but I think it would make the commute faster and better for most Santa Clara County residents.


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