Caltrain ponders tax increase to fund operations

Palo Alto urged to take leadership position in raising funds for cash-strapped agency

A year after barely avoiding draconian service cuts, Caltrain officials have several reasons to feel optimistic even as they continue to scramble for new funding sources to keep the trains running.

The agency, which draws funding from transit districts in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, withstood a financial crisis last year after San Mateo County Transit District (Samtrans) drastically cut back its contributions, prompting other agencies to follow suit. The result was a $30 million deficit on a budget of roughly $100 million.

The good news for the cash-strapped agency is that its popularity continues to soar, thanks in large part to contributions from major employers such as the Stanford University Medical Center and Facebook, according to Yoriko Kishimoto, a former Palo Alto mayor who currently leads the group "Friends of Caltrain." Kishimoto, who updated the City Council Rail Committee on Caltrain's latest efforts Thursday morning, said that increased ridership has created a 25 percent revenue increase for Caltrain over last year, putting a dent into its operating deficit.

Stanford University Medical Center, for example, announced last month that it has already offered Caltrain Go Passes to all of its employees. As of mid-December, about 2,000 employees had signed on for the monthly passes. Kishimoto estimated that the hospitals' contribution brings Caltrain $1.4 million in annual revenues. Facebook, she said, has shuttles operating for each train.

"The good thing, overall, is that every month since then (last year's financial crisis), Caltrain ridership has been going up and revenues are going up," Kishimoto said.

But the recent uptick in revenue doesn't erase the need for a dedicated funding source, which Caltrain still lacks. One idea on the table for addressing the agency's long-term needs is a sales-tax increase for San Mateo County. Kishimoto said Caltrain will be conducting polls and surveys in the coming months to gauge the likelihood of such a measure passing. Another proposal, from state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would raise the sales tax in all three counties to support Caltrain.

Kishimoto said Hill will detail his proposal at the Feb. 2 meeting of Friends of Caltrain.

Either tax proposal would have to be approved by voters before it's enacted.

Though her group hasn't taken a firm position on a particular funding measure, Kishimoto said a sales tax increase and Hill's three-county proposal so far seem to be the most promising solutions currently on the horizon.

Councilman Pat Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition that meets regularly to discuss rail-related issues, said it's too early to decide which solution to support, given that the polling hasn't been conducted yet. Burt said the measure that currently looks "most promising" would likely be a sales-tax measure.

Kishimoto said Caltrain, as a regional service, is at a major disadvantage when it comes to competing for federal funds, which she said tend to go to urban projects such as subways or intercity services. While Caltrain stretches from San Francisco to San Jose, much of its ridership comes from the Peninsula. Palo Alto's downtown station is Caltrain's second busiest station after San Francisco.

"We're kind of in nowhere land," Kishimoto said. "Maybe Palo Alto can help be an advocate in saying that we're falling between the cracks -- that there's a new model for the United States, that we're a metropolitan area and we need funding for regional rail."


Like this comment
Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Sorry, don't raise my taxes. Don't raise San Mateo's either.

Let the people who use this service pay what it costs.

When will these agencies learn that the government handouts aren't going to always be there?

You better learn how to live on what you bring in on your own.

Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of North Whisman
on Jan 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Here's an idea to help out a bit - make sure people actually paid to ride. While I always pay, I know a lot of people that don't, and hear people on the train talking about it all the time. They used to have conductors walking around checking people's tickets - in the past three years I've only been asked to show my ticket once.

Like this comment
Posted by q
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Since I don't drive, I don't want my taxes subsidizing people with cars.

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

No to new taxes!

Like this comment
Posted by driver
a resident of Stierlin Estates
on Jan 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Please don't eliminate Caltrain and put all those Caltrain riders on the hiways.

Like this comment
Posted by Ross Finlayson
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm

As I noted in response to yesterday's Caltrain story...

Caltrain could increase their ridership significantly by adding just one southbound train that leaves San Francisco later than midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. I, like many Peninsula residents, would like to be able to take Caltrain up to the City on Friday or Saturday evening - but this is often not possible because the midnight return train is just too early.

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Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 27, 2012 at 4:59 am


If people want it, they'll pay to ride it. Don't tax me for it.

Like this comment
Posted by psa188
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2012 at 10:09 am

Didn't Santa Clara county voters just raise sales taxes to pay for BART?

Why do we have to raise sales taxes again? The 2000 measure A sales tax was supposed to pay for these Caltrain-related projects:

# Improving Caltrain by double-tracking to Gilroy and electrifying from Palo Alto to Gilroy.

# Increasing the level of Caltrain service.

2000 Measure A sales tax we pay in Santa Clara County is also supposed to pay for "Funding operating and maintenance costs for increased bus, rail and paratransit services."

The problem is that the VTA Board diverted all the Measuse A money to BART and to get what we're already paying for vis-a-vis Caltrain the electeds are going to try to get us to raise taxes again. Vote "NO."

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

If I agree to this Caltrain tax, can they hire more jobless ex-politicians like Bevan Dufty!

Like this comment
Posted by kman
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 31, 2012 at 2:30 pm

How about taking the funds from HSR and putting it to good use on Bart as well as Caltrian.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jan 31, 2012 at 4:28 pm


Would voters in the Central Valley vote to let the Metro Areas (SF, LA, Sac, & SD) spend money that we all have to pay back? Probably not without lots of lawsuits or a new ballot measure at least. If HSR goes bye bye, it will be like BART went away in the 60's only to return to great commotion 50 yrs later. No where except through HSR does the money exist to make Caltrain sustainable. As sales tax revenue from existing taxes increases, Caltrain can get it share, but only as voted by the boards of VTA, Samtrans, and SFMTA (Muni).

A dedicated revenue source for baseline funding would also create more accountability at Caltrain (which is managed by Samtrans and about to change operators.

Like this comment
Posted by gcoladon
a resident of North Whisman
on Feb 1, 2012 at 4:12 pm

gcoladon is a registered user.

What's keeping Caltrain from doing what a private enterprise with a huge operating deficit but loyal customers would do? That is, progressively raise prices until the operating expenses are covered (losing some riders at the margin each time they increase), or cut expenses (lightly used trains, lightly used stations, etc) until the existing revenue is sufficient?

If someone had the most recently numbers for a) daily fares purchased between SF and the peninsula and b) the forecast budget shortfall for 2012, we could calculate what a starting fare increase would be to start closing the gap.

Even with a $5 hike to the one way fare, it's still cheaper for me to take the train to SF than to drive my car. My MPG could be better. But then you have to park in SF!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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