Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss will join the Caltrain board of directors in early December, giving Palo Alto and other north-county cities their first representative on the nine-member board -- at a critical time in Caltrain's future.
Kniss told Palo Alto Online Wednesday that she has long had a special interest in Caltrain as a backbone component of the Peninsula's transit connections.
"Caltrain is the most essential link we have in the get-out-of-your-car area of Palo Alto and Stanford," which are both high users of Caltrain, she said. And she feels rail resonates more with the public than other forms of transit, such as buses.
"Rail is romantic," in terms of public perception and interest in trains and rail history, she said.
She said Caltrain is facing a severe financial crisis due to the economic crash of the past few years and needs to streamline and solidify its sources of funding. It currently relies on a complex system of funding from counties and county transit districts, which have had to cut back due to reduced property and other tax revenues.
Caltrain also must define its connections to the California high-speed-rail project, which also are complex.
Kniss, a former Palo Alto councilwoman and mayor, was appointed by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) on Thursday to replace fellow Supervisor Don Gage, who is termed out in early December. The VTA board unanimously voted for Kniss to be Gage's successor, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said.
Kniss will join the Caltrain board at a time when rail transportation has emerged as one of the hottest issues in Palo Alto. Caltrain is projected to have a budget deficit of up to $30 million in fiscal year 2012. A coalition of citizens, including former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, has launched an effort to help make Caltrain financially sustainable.
Caltrain is also partnering with the California High-Speed Rail Authority on the Peninsula segment of the proposed San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line. The project has generated major opposition in Palo Alto, where the City Council has passed a resolution of "no confidence" in the high-speed rail project, and in other Peninsula cities.
The Palo Alto City Council, while critical of high-speed rail, has consistently lauded Caltrain as a vital commuter service. The city recently launched a new Rail Corridor Study to refine the city's vision for the rail corridor and to consider possible urban-design opportunities near the tracks.
The VTA controls three seats on the Caltrain board, which is officially called the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. The other six seats are split between San Francisco and the San Mateo County Transit District, commonly known as SAMTRANS.