Mountain View Voice

Opinion - January 28, 2011

Caltrain facing major cutbacks

Mass transportation dollars are beyond scarce these days, to the point that unless things change Caltrain, a Peninsula institution, is saying it will be forced to drop all off-peak (non-commute) trains, including those on the weekend and the specials that carry Giants and 49ers fans to their games. All service south of San Jose to Gilroy also would end. In the process, seven stations would close and the number of trains could shrink from 86 to 48 on weekdays.

Such a drastic reduction in service would undo many of the improvements Caltrain made over the last decade which had steadily increased the number of trains to nearly 90 per day, including a package of Baby Bullets that reduce the time between Mountain View and San Francisco to less than one hour. And so far, even the experts who gathered last week to brainstorm ways to make up for the sudden $30 million combined drop in funding from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties did not find an immediate solution that could keep the threatened trains on track. Caltrain's directors will discuss the budget crisis early next month and more public hearings are planned later in February.

In this county, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) doles out operating funds to Caltrain, mostly from sales tax revenues, which are not close to predicted levels due to the economic downturn. This funding should not be confused with capital funds the VTA collects from Measure A, a half-cent sales tax passed in 2000 to help fund numerous transportation projects, including BART to San Jose and some improvements for Caltrain. Collection of another one-eighth cent sales tax, Measure B, passed in 2008, is not yet in force, but could be within the next year.

At last week's hearing, ideas to support Caltrain ranged from merging each county's transportation agency into a regional unit, imposing local traffic impact fees on new housing construction, dedicating revenue from a high occupancy lane on Highway 101 and a possible gasoline tax increase, if voters approve.

None of the possible remedies are of the type that could be implemented soon enough to make an appreciable difference to Caltrain's immediate budget crisis. It has been known for some time that the railroad would struggle during the economic downturn. And in recent months Caltrain's hopes to get help from the high-speed rail authority for needed infrastructure improvements like electrification fell through. Last month, the rail authority opted to build its first segment in the Central Valley, rather than take on the cantankerous Peninsula, where there is strident and organized opposition to high-speed rail.

Sadly for Caltrain, the momentum for building major transportation infrastructure is in the East Bay and BART. County voters have twice approved sales tax measures that deliver billions of dollars to the BART to San Jose project, which is moving forward. A five-mile, BART-funded extension in Alameda County is under construction now that will reach Warm Springs by 2014. Using a combination of Measure A, state and federal funding, VTA's $2.1 billion Phase 1 will break ground next year on a 10-mile segment from Warm Springs to the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose with stations at Milpitas and Berryessa. Using a similar funding mix, the $3.5 billion Phase 2 segment will run six miles, mostly underground, from Berryessa to Santa Clara, with stations at Alum Rock, downtown San Jose, Diridon/Arena and Santa Clara/San Jose Airport. From there, BART will connect to Caltrain giving passengers a way to reach San Francisco, although if a better funding source is not found, the Peninsula's iconic railroad may not even be here when BART Phase 2 reaches the San Jose Airport at Santa Clara.

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