Who should pick up Caltrain tab?
Council says VTA should step up, but with consequences for northern counties
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 firstname.lastname@example.org