That's the message a new group, Friends of Caltrain, told nearly 100 people at the Menlo Park Library Tuesday night.
The grassroots coalition of cities, neighborhood groups, employers, environmentalists, transit advocates and residents is seeking ways to find a permanent and dedicated source of operating funds for Caltrain. The commuter service could face a $30 million deficit in 2012, its next fiscal year, said former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is leading the coalition.
Caltrain is facing a tipping point, coalition members said. It lacks funds to either run an existing service so as to keep rider levels up or modernize services so they'd attract and increase ridership and revenues.
Caltrain is operated by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, comprised of representatives from three counties: San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco. In February, Caltrain's average weekday ridership was 36,778, according to the organization's annual passenger count. That's a 6 percent decrease from 2009, but also the first decrease in ridership since the implementation of the Baby Bullet service in 2004.
The Friends are working on a ballot measure they hope to put before voters in 2012 that would institute a tax to provide a steady source of revenue for Caltrain, Kishimoto said. The rail line also has costly plans for electrification, which would increase the line's efficiency, reduce emissions by up to 90 percent and attract more riders, coalition members said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in a March 2009 report, found that the regional transit system's long-term viability is at risk and not sustainable, based on current projections of transit costs and anticipated revenues.
"Transportation 2035 Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area," outlined how $218 billion in anticipated federal, state and local transportation funds would be spent in the nine-county Bay Area during the next 25 years.
Caltrain has the second highest ticket-sales revenue among 28 transit agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area, Carolyn Clevenger of MTC said.
Caltrain takes in 43 percent through fares, according to preliminary findings by the MTC's Transit Sustainability Project, a follow-up to Transportation 2035.
Nearly 40 percent of Caltrain's funding comes from three other county transit agencies: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans); and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni).
But those agencies are experiencing their own crises due to decreased ridership and budget cuts, officials said.
Caltrain "is just one competitor for the beleaguered general budgets," Kishimoto said.
"We have to look down this frightening cliff and ask ourselves some basic questions: 'Can we imagine life on the Peninsula without Caltrain?'; 'What structural changes should we examine to control long-term costs and increase our ability to deliver more and better service that will attract more riders, not less?'"
Kishimoto and others said the time is ripe to leverage federal stimulus funds.
"If high-speed rail comes, we want to work with representatives to get electrification for Caltrain. The worst nightmare would be for high-speed rail to come with its own independent funding and for Caltrain to go," she said.
But getting joint funding would only be possible if there is an end to the squabbling regarding the California high-speed rail initiative and if there is a common voice on regional transportation planning, coalition members said.
"This is the turning point," Burlingame Vice Mayor Terry Nagel said, after having met with federal representatives earlier Tuesday. "The federal folks are looking for areas that reach consensus."
More than $139 million in federal funds could potentially be part of Caltrain's share if high-speed rail receives federal funding, which would fund a study on electrification, according to the coalition.
Caltrain board member Arthur Lloyd said modernization provides good potential for financial revitalization. That was shown when "baby bullet" trains were added and ridership increased. Ironically, electrification was explored with a number of engines in 1923, but the project halted during the Depression in 1929, he said.
Todd McIntyre, SamTrans community-relations manager, said funding isn't likely to improve from Caltrain's usual funding sources, the other transit agencies. SamTrans eliminated 60 employees during the last fiscal year, he said.
Electrification would help improve financial sustainability by doubling ridership, reducing pollution from trains by up to 90 percent and allowing for more efficient service. One additional train in each direction could run every peak hour, he said.
If Caltrain does encounter its "worst case scenario" — the $30 million deficit in 2012 — train service could be reduced to one an hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and could be eliminated entirely on weekends, he said.
Losing Caltrain could have a much greater regional impact on Bay Area quality of life and economics, Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner Sue Lempert said.
"If Caltrain went out of business, what happens to transit villages along the way?" she asked.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said losing Caltrain would have enormous impacts on Palo Alto and Stanford.
"Stanford as an entity is helping to subsidize Caltrain more than any other entity," he said. Many university employees and workers in Stanford Research Park, including Facebook, use Caltrain, he said.
"We would have great congestion, and the Stanford campus and (proposed) hospital development are hinged upon Caltrain," he said. The primary recommendation for easing traffic congestion as a result of Stanford's planned expansion is the GO Pass from Caltrain, which provides unlimited rides for a year for one price.
The university accounts for 50 percent of Caltrain's GO Passes currently. When the hospital is added, Stanford will account for two-thirds of all Caltrain GO Passes, he said.
The Friends group plans a summit on Jan. 29, 2011, with an official kickoff to include Rep. Anna Eshoo and the Silicon Valley Leadership Council, among others. A "stakeholder" outreach meeting is planned for spring, with another public outreach meeting for summer or fall 2011.