Liz Kniss to join Caltrain board

Santa Clara County supervisor and former Palo Alto mayor to give northern county its first representative on board

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.

Gennady Sheyner

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Posted by Martin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Let's get the picture straight. Caltrain says they are in trouble, having lost much of their supplementary subsidies from sources such as SamTrans. Oh, wait. SamTrans and Caltrain are actually the same organization with Mike Scanlon as the CEO of both. So, Peter won't pay Paul, so to speak. That's Caltrain's dilemma, not ours.

Yes, the loss of supplementary funding is harmful; not only to Caltrain but to most urban and regional transit operators in the US. Caltrain is neither exceptional nor unusual. Which is to say, urban mass transit has a very low priority in our struggling economy today. Tell that to Anna Eshoo! You can't have it both ways; either we pay to salvage our urban/regional transit systems or we pay for a ridiculous luxury train. We certainly can't afford both!

But, Caltrain has self-imposed problems as well. Instead of solving those, they wish to upgrade their rolling stock, rails and propulsion system. And, they say that they are counting on high-speed rail to do that for them with the stimulus and other federal billions that will be made available. That's why Caltrain is so eager for HSR to join them on their (our) rail corridor. Caltrain argues that HSR-paid-for electrification will bail them out of most of their operating debt. That, of course, is nonsense.

The truth is that capital development expenditures, such as for new glitzy EMUs, are very sexy. All these wished for hardware fixes will not, of course, solve Caltrain's structural deficit problem. Capital development fund expenditures make great photo ops, while fixing the boring operating budget can always be put off another fiscal year. That's how most bureaucrats think about it. And that's how Caltrain has been thinking about it for a long, long time. Instead of lusting for that whizzy electric train for Christmas year after year, they should have been working to secure permanent supplementary funding.

Harware upgrades are not solutions to their problems. Among their real problems are a too-expensive headcount; i.e., too many employees with too large salaries. Also a too-expensive contract with the train operator, Amtrak. Caltrain's belt-tightening has been gestural, not substantive. Scanlon and his minions aren't really surprised. They've seen this problem coming for years. It should have been their highest priority. It suggests incompetent management.

Another basic problem is that Caltrain doesn't know who their friends are. They think that high-speed rail on the corridor will secure their future. Boy, are they wrong. Their future rests with us, the residents, citizens and their customers living on the Peninsula. They haven't learned that basic truth yet. And, until they do, they don't need our help.

Then, there's the problem of Caltrain's wrong business model. They think they are in the railroad business and therefore new rolling stock will make them more productive. That's also wrong. They should understand that they are in the urban and regional mass transit business, which is a deficit public utility by definition.

Furthermore, they should acknowledge that moving people around in the most effective way can't be done exclusively by rail; it must be multi-modal. Getting the first and last mile solved -- getting people to and from Caltrain stations -- will go a long way to increasing their ridership/productivity and help them do the job for which they are intended.

Our being a 'friend of Caltrain' should mean, first and foremost, 'tough love.' The make-up of this new Caltrain support group doesn't look like it can deliver on that. It's OK to be a 'friend' of Caltrain, but such friendship has to cut both ways.

The equation is simple. Caltrain needs to become a friend of all of us on the Peninsula. That way, we can be friends of Caltrain. What does that mean? We don't want high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor, but we do want Caltrain to exist and flourish. If Caltrain is willing to relinquish high-speed rail on their corridor, we on the Peninsula can make Caltrain, like the Army, "be all that it can be." That's the deal.

OK, Caltrain, your call. Friends of Caltrain? Caveat Emptor.


Like this comment
Posted by Rethink-CalTrain
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 2:31 pm

> but we do want Caltrain to exist and flourish.

The cost of CalTrain is unsustainable, if it were to model its activities on a "true-cost" basis. If this were done, the per-ride cost would probably be in the $50-$100/ride, rather than the current $2-$9 ticket cost.

Before we "adopt" CalTrain as our "baby", we should be looking to find other approaches to provide this "transportation service". For instance, rather than running these trains on the weekend, what would it cost to run buses between the South Bay and SF? While this approach might be a little slower for those using the buses, the public subsidy would be far less--which would seem to be a very desirable public policy goal.

Like this comment
Posted by Real
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:03 pm

After BART, Caltrain's farebox recovery is among the highest around ... on the order of 45-50% as compared to VTA's at something like 15%, as I recall. A 50% farebox recovery ratio suggests un-subsidized ticket prices would be double what they are today -- not "$50-$100/ride" as Rethink-CalTrain states. All the budget data is routinely included in the board packages on Caltrain's website.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:26 pm

@Rethink-Caltrain: you would be better served by shutting down VTA, SamTrans, AC Transit and MUNI. They lose far more on the dollar than Caltrain. If your goal is to reduce public subsidy, you would need to also shut down BART, which is only a few percent less unprofitable than Caltrain.

Caltrain is the 2nd most profitable (least unprofitable) transit operator in the Bay Area... it's almost tied for first with BART. Caltrain is three times more profitable than bus service (as you propose).

@Martin: Caltrain can survive and strengthen its bottom line by growing ridership. Growing ridership can only be done by vastly improving service. Vastly improving service can be done most cheaply with electrification. Some of the $1.5 billion for that project would be incurred anyway, in the form of a $400 million replacement of Caltrain's mostly life-expired fleet of diesel trains.

Like this comment
Posted by Rethink-CalTrain
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm

CalTrain does not use "true-cost" accounting for making its fare-box recovery calculations. "True-Cost" accounting includes the cost of capital projects (construction costs and bond financing), not just operational costs. If this approach were used, then the cost-per-ticket would be very much higher than it is--hence the estimate of $50-$100/ride.

Unfortunately, there is no law that requires agencies like CalTrain to use "true-cost" accounting, or even to maintain complete records of spending so that total costs for a given project, or the total system, can be easily ascertained by the public.

Like this comment
Posted by Rethink-CalTrain
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:37 pm

> you would be better served by shutting down VTA,
> SamTrans, AC Transit and MUNI. They lose far more on the dollar than
> Caltrain

Again, none of these agencies use "True-Cost" accounting to determine "fare-box recovery" ratios. If they did, the results would be very different than they are now.

All of the bus services carry a far greater number of people "per invested dollar" than CalTrain. CalTrain will never carry very many more people than it does now, and can only carry people on the current right-of-way. The bus services can transport people anywhere there is a road, making them far more adaptable to shifts in demand.

Like this comment
Posted by Herb Borock
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Supervisor Liz Kniss is not the first Caltrain Board member from the north county cities. When Jean McCown was on the Palo Alto City Council she served on the Caltrain Joint Powers Authority Board. After she left the Council she continued to serve on the Caltrain Board until her board term expired at the end of 1998.

Like this comment
Posted by stu
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I just don't get CalTrain, thinking that partnering with HSR will be its salvation. If HSR runs on the CalTrain tracks, it ill essentially add numerous HSR baby bullet trains on the line. For every HSR baby bullet train added, means less CalTrain baby bullet ridership. Considering that the baby bulet trains are CalTrains' most 'profitable', or least costly, trains, CalTrain will ultimately be the big looser. Caltrain will be relegated to the more costly local train service, which will further exacerbate their financial troubles.

My suggestion to CalTrain, for them to remain a viable, and necessary part of bay area transit is to push for HSR to stop in San Jose, and push the feds for funds for electrification and grade separations. CalTrain published reports a decade ago clearly stating that a switch to EMU cars would cut the SJ to SF transit time to something like 40 minutes, making all the stops, if I recall correctly. Considering it's 10 minutes, or so, slower than the HSR target SJ to S time, that's compelling enough to seriously question the necessity of running HSR to SF. Of course I'm guessing the real reason HSR 'needs' to terminate in SF is so Diridon and Kopp can have their photo op, quit the board, and watch the train drain the states resources.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Until Caltrain is modernized with a flexible fleet of EMUs or DMUs, the schedule should be cut to strictly peak M - F traffic. Yes, that means cutting weekend, early morning, mid day, and late night service.

When was the last time, that any of us rode on a half-empty airplane?

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

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