Caltrain board declares fiscal emergency

Cuts could close up to seven stations between San Jose and San Francisco by July

Caltrain's board of directors declared a fiscal emergency Thursday (March 3) after hundreds of riders packed SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos and asked members not to cut services.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which governs Caltrain, declared the emergency so directors could consider "radical" solutions and close a $30 million budget deficit Caltrain faces over the coming year, Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon said.

The declaration gives the board a greater ability to make drastic service changes and cuts to keep its operating budget afloat in the 2012 fiscal year.

The board's vote came after hundreds of people who packed the meeting had already left. Many warned transportation officials that cutting service would run the risk of losing riders permanently.

The audience overflowed the auditorium into a second room, and a long line of speakers stretched down the aisle.

Caltrain officials have been warning for months that the rail line faces a $30 million operations deficit on a $100 million budget due to major subsidy cuts from its three contributing transportation agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency. The three agencies fund nearly 40 percent of Caltrain's operating budget but face financial problems of their own due to state funding cuts, officials said.

The fiscal crisis began after SamTrans, which faces a $50 million deficit, announced it would cut its contribution to the rail line from $14.7 million to $4.8 million. The two other agencies likewise would make proportional cuts: VTA would reduce its share from $14.1 million to $4.6 million and San Francisco would drop from $6.2 million to $2 million for fiscal year 2012, according to a Caltrain staff report.

Cuts to the 147-year-old passenger-rail line could include ending train service south of San Jose's Diridon Station, ending service at as many as seven of 10 stations, dropping the number of weekday trains from 86 to 48 and ending all daytime, evening, weekend and special-event service except for peak commuter times, the board has warned.

But residents urged the board to consider several alternatives, including taking $5.5 million earmarked for the Dumbarton Rail project, selling excess rail property, deferring electrification and using some capital funds for Caltrain operations and raising fares and parking fees.

Residents from as far away as Monterey said they rely on Caltrain for service that links them to the Peninsula. Students from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose said they travel from as far south as San Juan Bautista (south of Gilroy) and as far north as San Francisco to get to school. With two parents working, many students rely on financial aid and don't have any way to get to school other than Caltrain, they said.

"The train is the largest and most efficient carpool," sophomore Jack Morris said.

Other meeting attendees said their housing choices were contingent on the train service.

"I live within spitting distance of the Tamien station. We moved there because we knew they were opening up that station," San Jose resident Victoria Carmona said.

Residents asked the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board members, who govern Caltrain, to preserve even minimal service to each station.

"By eliminating service, you will lose ridership and reduce the return of public and private TOD (transit-oriented development) investment," Don Rosenblatt, a Palo Alto resident who lives near the Caltrain station, said. Ironically, crews were working Thursday on improvements to the San Antonio station -- one that is planned for cuts, he said.

City officials and residents from up and down the Peninsula echoed his sentiment, saying that many city development plans for higher-density housing and residential and retail mixed-use development had been driven by the expectation that Caltrain service would be available.

Transit-oriented development in the general plan for the City of San Bruno includes 1,600 homes and a million square feet of office space -- some of which would be above the train station, Aaron Aknin, community development director, said.

In October, the Burlingame City Council approved a downtown-specific plan that would have to be scrapped if the city rail stop ends up on the chopping block, Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said.

Palo Alto is also encouraging transit-oriented developments near Caltrain stations. The city recently approved a senior-housing development on Alma Street, near the downtown station. Planning officials are also revising the zoning designations near the California Avenue Caltrain station in hopes of attracting more mixed-use and residential developments to the area. Easy access to transit is a critical component of the California Avenue "concept plan."

Several residents who have developmental and physical disabilities also said the cuts would harm their ability to travel and maintain independence.

Angel Wiley, who advocated on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, said many people with disabilities live in the federally subsidized Horizon Apartments near the Belmont station, which is also being considered for cuts.

"The location for this housing was chosen because it is close to the train," she said.

"This is an economic- and social-justice issue," said Sue Digre, a Pacifica City Council member and advocate for family-support services at Parca, a Burlingame-based advocacy and housing organization for people with developmental and other disabilities. "These are folks who have no recourse. They are people who need service seven days a week. For them, this is it," she said of Caltrain.

Board members will decide April 7 which cuts could be made.

If cuts are made, service could be reduced by July 1, members said.


Like this comment
Posted by Anti-Radiation_Activist
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 4, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Google could definitely contribute to fill the shortcomings and save the San Antonio station at the same time.

Like this comment
Posted by musat
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Google is closest to the Mountain View station, which is a hub for bus and light rail as well and supports a taxi queue. Google and other shuttles already link to this station. Why San Antonio?

Like this comment
Posted by Doug Pearson
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Mar 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm

It's easy to name profitable businesses and wealthy people as sources of income to Caltrain--and every other public entity including the Federal government. They all, of course, allow voluntary contributions and I applaud anyone or any business that contributes to Caltrain, but there are only two sources of income Caltrain can depend on as the recent cuts by the Joint Powers illustrates: fares and special taxes.

Caltrain should raise fares but, realistically, have little leeway there because every increase in fares results in reduced ridership and increased cost per rider. That leaves taxes. I believe a property tax increment is Caltrain's best choice and recommend a tax of a penny per square foot for all taxable property in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, plus an additional tax of two cents per square foot for all property within 1 mile of the tracks.

Like this comment
Posted by PH
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2011 at 8:15 am

I posted my thoughts after the article about saving the San Antonio station. Simply put, save the whole train infrastructure, but get it right as we all get tired of throwing money in to an endless pit.

Like this comment
Posted by sue
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2011 at 4:29 pm

santa clara universty also can contribut money to caltrain to keep the santa clara train station open for the students and staffs come and go.also the san jose airport shuttle bus picks up and drops off people to and from the airport.the san jose airport also can contribut money to keep the santa clara caltrain station open.

Like this comment
Posted by EasyLike SundayMorning
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 6, 2011 at 6:00 am

Paint one of the cars green and sell cannabis to qualified patients out of it at every stop. I know I know, but it makes me chuckle thinking about it.
The funny thing is that it'd probably work.

Like this comment
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

Doug P. has a good point here. The way to make a sustainable operation is not to finger particular profitable businesses - and not to rely on very fragile JPA contracts between government bodies. These JPAs are really nothing more than contracts, which have many termination clauses and "fiscal emergency" clauses that allow rapid shutdowns. Hence - money sharing from San Mateo SamTrans is entirely discretionary.
Doug's simple tax is an easy to understand - and tied-to-benefit type of funding. It's simple. It would phase in as JPA funding phased out.
It makes no sense IMO to have the SamTrans management run the rail system. They have demonstrated little commitment to doing this efficiently (Sorry - they get an F for Failure).

Like this comment
Posted by Hank Snow
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Sell some sort of lottery bonds backed by Caltrain revenues.

Like this comment
Posted by Alfred W
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm

I strongly disagree with the perceived benefits of living near the tracks.
The closer to the track the more noise your get from caltrain operations. For example, those living near MV downtown they get 12 horn blasts for every train that pass by (2 pedestrian + 1 road crossings) per FRA and CPUC regulations
With the current schedule, the last train go through MV at 1:08 am and the first morning train is at 4:49 am. These folks only get 3:30 of uninterrupted sleep! forget about raising healthy kids under these conditions. And now you are talking about taxing them on the top of that!
These folks would dream for Caltrain to cut the mostly empty late night and early morning trains and focus on profitable commute service.
Don't ask them to pay for the rope to hang them!

Like this comment
Posted by steve
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Doug P. why should folks pay extra taxes just because they live within 1 mile of the train? Why should the many pay for the privilege of a few?

Not only are you suggesting we penalize folks for merely living close to the tracks, but you will also drive their property values down, all because a *very* small subset of the people in the bay area want to ride on a train. Talk about the tyranny of the minority!

There is a reason people are leaving this state in droves, and it is because of patently absurd ideas such as yours becoming law through our incredibly irresponsible and intellectually bankrupt legislature

Like this comment
Posted by Jes' Sayin'
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Mar 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Ever ride the trains in Europe? Didn't you just love it? Know why they're so good? They're subsidized from taxes on air tickets. Considering how much more economical and useful train travel is, it might be time we stop bailing out failing airlines and start supporting the trains.

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

It will never happen because there are too many fiefdoms and egos involved, but we really need a single regional transit authority for the Bay Area. Such a body could achieve operation and staffing efficiencies that would likely decrease the cost per passenger mile and coordinate schedules so public transportation works across the region rather than provincially. A strong and business-savvy General Manager, and an elected Board of Directors serving ten year terms, would ensure long-term thinking toward building a world class, and sustainable, regional public transportation system. As an alternative, we could have a mixed bag of parochial and provincial public transportation systems and organizations, each dependent on their own source of funding, with a public be damned attitude. But we have tried that, huh?

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