After several changes in ownership and name for the commuter service (including many years as an unwanted stepchild of Southern Pacific Railway), the same three counties took over ownership of Caltrain in 1992 and govern it today through a joint powers board (JPB), watching its ridership increase substantially.
In return, Caltrain has shaped the touch and feel of the Peninsula: The fine-grained walkable downtowns have developed as "pearls on a necklace" along its line — just as a century or more earlier Peninsula cities were called "knots on a string" as they formed along the tracks.
Today, while billions of dollars pour in for high-speed rail, Caltrain is threatened with bankruptcy, or just as bad it could die a slow death by entering a downward spiral of reduced service and reduced ridership.
That is why a number of stakeholders are pulling together to form "Friends of Caltrain." The idea is to work toward developing a dedicated, permanent source of operating funds that are needed, with or without high speed rail, to keep Caltrain healthy and running. The day-to-day operating deficit is the biggest threat.
Next Tuesday, Nov. 9, we are having a public meeting to present the regional context for Caltrain's serious challenges, both immediate and long-term. The meeting will be at the Menlo Park library from 7 to 9 p.m. (For more information, go to www.greencaltrain.com/event-saving-caltrain-the-bay-area-connection/).
We are planning a kick-off "Caltrain Summit" for Jan. 29, 2011, to reach out to the interested parties, partner with cities, employers, elected officials, neighborhoods, and environmental groups — allies to help advocate for a financing and governance structure that will be constructive for all stakeholders, including Caltrain.
Caltrain's success is its problem. Caltrain has the second highest fare-box recovery of the 28 transit agencies in the Bay Area. In other words, it is among the most self-sustaining transit agencies operationally.
This is thanks to the dramatic increase in ridership achieved when the Baby Bullet express trains were introduced and travel time was reduced for many riders. Unfortunately, service to most stations was reduced as a trade-off.
Also, many Peninsulans may not know that year after year Caltrain must go to the three counties to get operating funds to supplement the 43 percent that comes from fares. The counties have been steady in providing support, but Caltrain is just one competitor for funding from the struggling state and counties and their transportation authorities.
Thus it finds itself facing a "worst-case" budget gap of up to $30 million (on a 2009 budget of $91 million) in the next fiscal year as the counties warn they will need to cut back
The time is right for us to create some dedicated and permanent funding for Caltrain.
Caltrain recently reduced service to 90 trains as day, from a peak of 98 a few years ago and it has announced a further cut for next year.
The good news is that demand is strong and steady for Caltrain. Our daily ridership is still close to 40,000 despite recent cuts in services and fare increases. The bad news is that state and county contributions to Caltrain face further, potentially dramatic cuts.
We know that excellent public transportation is key, actually indispensable, for our "innovation economy" to grow. For example, Stanford University is dependent on a well-functioning Caltrain to allow it to grow in workforce and population without creating a burden on its neighboring cities or the environment.
The federal government has just announced its $715 million for high speed rail in California is to go to the Central Valley. This should alleviate the rush to complete all the analysis and decisions about the Peninsula alignment to meet the 2012 deadline to get "shovels in the ground," although no change in deadline schedules have been announced.
Although this means there is no immediate funding from this source for electrification or a modern train-control system for Caltrain, the silver lining is that we have no excuse now: We now have time to "do it right."
To serve the Peninsula of the future, Caltrain needs to deliver real service improvements: higher frequency of service, competitive door-to-door travel time, safety and integration with the communities along the line.
No matter what long-term decisions are made, it's clear that Caltrain is critical to our Peninsula's future. We will need some sort of dedicated funding.
At the Jan. 29 "Caltrain Summit" we will explore what type of new revenues might be supported by our voters, solicit more ideas for increasing ridership and improving service, talk about better integration of community and rail — and discuss our hopes and visions for our Peninsula's future.
Our steering committee is made up of representatives from neighborhood, transit, cyclist, and environmental groups, employers and cities. Join CARRD, BayRail Alliance, DriveLess, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter and Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens Committee and join us next Tuesday to learn about Friends of Caltrain and the regional context for Caltrain's challenges and opportunities.
We believe Peninsula residents are hungry to support a great regional rail system that will support our walkable communities for generations to come.