Mountain View Voice

Opinion - February 11, 2011

VTA may hold key for Caltrain funding

Top valley transit officials took a bold step this week, saying that the VTA has a plan that could ante up an additional $16 million to Caltrain, possibly enough to help the agency avoid the drastic service cuts it has threatened to impose by July 1.

In a memo to the Valley Transportation Authority board, general manager Michael Burns said the VTA could contribute enough to reduce the estimated $30 million Caltrain shortfall to $14 million for the next fiscal year, and suggested other measures that could put the beleaguered rail line on a more solid footing in the years ahead.

It is a plan we hope Caltrain, and its San Mateo County partner SamTrans, take seriously. The VTA's offer is complicated, but includes a $7.1 million payment to SamTrans for Caltrain right-of-way that dates back to when the railroad was purchased from Southern Pacific. By applying that amount to its contribution to Caltrain operations, contributions would rise proportionally from the VTA and San Francisco, the third Caltrain partner.

It was SamTrans' decision to cut its Caltrain contribution that caused the funding crisis, as all three counties have agreed to contribute the same amount. In part, the SamTrans decision is due to the agency's commitment to pay off a loan for building the BART connector from Caltrain's Millbrae station to San Francisco International Airport. SamTrans is saddled with a large debt for the little-used line, which is taking away from its contribution to Caltrain.

The VTA memo also recommends that the remaining funds reserved for Dumbarton Rail crossing be given to Caltrain, saying the region cannot afford the costly project at this time. Although no amount was mentioned in the memo, there is said to be $5.5 million available if it can be released.

In our view, the best hope for long-term and stable Caltrain funding could come if the $191 million in savings for electrification could be converted to operating funds. Although electrification remains desirable, without help from the High-Speed Rail Authority, Caltrain would struggle to complete this large project. Such a conversion would likely need voter approval in all three counties, the memo said.

News of the VTA's offer, which has the support of board chair Margaret Abe-Koga, a member of the City Council, is the first sign that the drastic cutbacks threatened by Caltrain may not be necessary. Abe-Koga also said the VTA might be open to adding even more to its Caltrain contribution if Caltrain would save some of the stations slated for closure and service reductions threatened in Santa Clara County.

Without more funding, Caltrain has said it will eliminate all weekend and daily off-peak trains, as well as Gilroy service and special runs to Giants baseball games. Caltrain currently carries 40,000 riders on 89 trains a day round trip between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. Mountain View has the third highest number of boardings on the line, and would be severely impacted if Caltrain implements the proposed service cuts. We hope the boards that oversee SamTrans and Caltrain accept VTA's generous offer and find a way to avoid the drastic cuts that would cripple the Peninsula's premier commuting service.

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