Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 4, 2011

Editorial: MTC must act to help save Caltrain

Railroad's financial crisis mobilizes Silicon Valley businesses, transit advocates, environmentalists, riders and even car commuters to prevent a 'death spiral'

The late-January announcement that Caltrain must cut $30 million by July has created a huge concern among a broad range of interests in Silicon Valley and on the Peninsula.

The severity of cuts (from a $100 million annual budget) is unprecedented. Caltrain would be virtually eliminated as a significant commute alternative south of San Jose and crippled on the Peninsula, limited essentially to rush-hour service: no more train rides to Giants' games.

Participants in two large "save Caltrain" conferences in the past two weeks warned that the cutbacks could well kill Caltrain, dumping most of its 40,000 average daily riders onto already congested north-south freeways. Turning Highway 101 into a parking lot would also jam cross-bay bridges.

One speaker at Saturday's "Friends of Caltrain" conference warned that Caltrain would plunge into a "death spiral" — sensational-sounding but probably accurate. Similar concerns were voiced a week earlier at a "save Caltrain" conference sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, primarily representing large businesses in the valley that rely heavily on Caltrain to get employees to work and home. It will severely impact Stanford University's ability to achieve its mandate of zero new trips due to its Medical Center/Hospital expansion.

This train wreck simply must not be allowed to happen.

The primary cause of the crisis is the recession, which has resulted in a severe drop in revenues for the three transit agencies that have been subsidizing Caltrain for years: Santa Clara County's VTA, San Mateo County's Samtans, and San Francisco's Muni system. Samtrans alone, facing a $23 million deficit, has announced it must cut its contribution to Caltrain by $10 million. The others are expected to make equivalent cutbacks.

It is not a question of Caltrain's success. It has the highest farebox return, at about 47 percent this year, at the lowest administrative-overhead cost of any transit entity in the Bay region. What it lacks is a dedicated source of reliable subsidy funds.

Yet conference participants, including numerous city and county and other officials, voiced more concerns than they did solutions.

Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, called for regional funding of regional transit, breaking down barriers between the respective transit agencies and streamlining administrative operations to focus on top priorities. One speaker warned that Caltrain would be long dead by the time voters might approve sales tax or other additional funds.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) warned at both conferences of the economic and congestion consequences of losing either all or part of Caltrain.

But the crisis cannot wait for long-term solutions. Unless a funding source (or sources) can be identified in the next three or four months Caltrain will have to implement deep cuts by July 1, the new fiscal year.

Virtually everyone involved agrees this would be catastrophic. The impacts would stretch throughout the region and touch thousands of businesses. It would be terrible for individuals and families trying to get to and from work, either by train or car. It would increase air pollution and health problems.

We see one avenue of hope: The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) was created in 1970, initially as a planning agency to study and coordinate transit and transportation services. It evolved into having some powers in assigning priorities and even funds to areas of greatest need.

If there is ever a time to flex its powers it is now. It could, for example, reassign $5.5 million in the long-stalled Dumbarton Rail project to Caltrain funding, on the grounds that a dead-stop Highway 101 would soon result in a backup halfway across Dumbarton Bridge, as well as San Mateo and the Bay bridges.

The MTC could itself declare a funding emergency and take the initiative in finding funds to fill the Caltrain deficit before July 1. Perhaps the state Legislature could establish some mechanism for major corporations to make interest-free loans to keep Caltrain sound and effective.

We don't think the existing transit agencies can solve this situation. They have their own deficit problems right now.

But the MTC, with key state and federal legislators behind it, might be able to stave off a short-term crisis as it continues seeking longer-term restructuring for transit operations throughout the region.

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