Merge transit agencies, 'Save Caltrain' summit told

Regional reorganization seen as key to reviving, saving Caltrain and providing better, more efficient service

Local transportation agencies should be merged and their funds used to support a regional transit agency, state Assemblyman Jim Beall (D-San Jose) said at the Save Caltrain summit at Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research on Friday (Jan. 21) morning.

"We should get rid of some of these organizations. We need a regional source of funding for a regional agency," Beall said.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group convened the summit of 230 attendees to press home the urgent need to create independent funding sources for Caltrain or risk losing the Peninsula train service altogether.

Panelists and summit participants came up with a list of ideas to create stable, independent sources of revenue for Caltrain.

There was a crisis atmosphere at the summit that had not existed as intensely at earlier discussions of Caltrain's funding dilemma.

On Thursday, on the eve of the summit, Caltrain announced that it may have to cut $30 million from its $100 million annual budget because of potentially huge cutbacks in subsidies from other transit agencies. That would mean "drastic" cuts in the Peninsula commute service, on top of existing cutbacks.

Caltrain currently must rely on roughly 40 percent of its funding from three metropolitan transit agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA and San Francisco's transit (MTA), according to preliminary findings by the MTC's Transit Sustainability Project. SamTrans recently announced it plans to cut its subsidy to Caltrain by $10 million.

Merging the cumbersome and perhaps overlapping transportation agencies could help streamline costs and create a regional set of services that are based on ridership strength and uses, participants said.

The irony of Caltrain's dilemma is that its ridership is up compared to the transportation agencies that fund it, Steve Heminger, Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director said.

That's one reason Beall and other summit participants said they think it is time to look at how available dollars are being distributed.

At some point, cutting service could render Caltrain irrelevant, speakers said. The current system is "eating your seed corn," Heminger said of borrowing from other agencies. "Transit needs to be sustainable. Otherwise, you're building around empty shells."

Service cuts to address the shortfall could eliminate all weekday service outside of the commute peak, kill weekend and special-events services such as for Giants and 49ers games, close seven stations out of 23, reduce trains from 86 weekday trips to 48 and end all train service south of San Jose, Caltrain officials said.

"Caltrain is the spine of our transportation system. ... None of us want to face the prospect that 12 million riders per year will return to our highways," U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said at the summit via a broadcast.

Panel and round-table discussions suggested local traffic-impact fees on new construction, trading carbon credits that businesses can buy to mitigate for their carbon footprint, extending bridge-congestion pricing to other bridges beyond the Bay Bridge.

Dedicating revenue to Caltrain from a high occupancy/toll (HOT) lane on Highway 101 and a possible voter-approved gas tax increase as ways to generate stable revenue, were among other ideas suggested, officials said.

Participants said incentives could modernize and boost commuter ridership, such as adding WiFi and a business-class rail car to Caltrain.

Beall said tax credits provided through Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, could make it profitable for agencies to clean up the air and investors in public transit could buy the tax or carbon credits and help generate money for Caltrain.

Panelist Elizabeth Deakin, University of California, Berkeley professor of city and regional planning, suggested high-occupancy/toll lanes could have tolls dedicated for public transit, as could peak-hour tolls.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a Bay Area public-transportation advocacy group, suggested turning a lane on Highway 101 into a high-occupancy/toll lane and creating a low-cost GO Pass program for new residential buildings.

But San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said getting a new tax in the current economic climate would not go over with voters, and it would take years to accomplish.

"Caltrain will be dead by then if we just focus on a tax," he said.

State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, who took part via a broadcast, said a sales-tax increase should be considered. But there would have to be significant organizational changes to show the voters Caltrain would be run efficiently.

Supervisor Liz Kniss of Santa Clara County also cautioned against getting hopes up to retain future state funding.

"The state general fund (for transportation) will evaporate in terms of any funding," she said of the next few years.

Several speakers urged that Caltrain get some of the funding being set aside for the California high-speed-rail project.

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 grassroots coalition Friends of Caltrain, which is spearheaded by former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto.

Few at Friday's summit wanted to step into the quagmire of high-speed rail discussions.

But Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt said "the reality is high-speed rail ... funding, if it ever comes, is a decade away, which makes it not a short- or mid-term solution."

But Palo Alto's "economic vitality and quality of life would be drastically impacted" if Caltrain shut down, he said.

Kishimoto agreed.

"Caltrain is at the heart of where the Peninsula needs to go. Our economy, our environment -- everything is predicated on a healthy Caltrain," she said.

Carl Guardino, Silicon Valley leadership Group's president and CEO, said funding Caltrain needs three strategies: short term, medium term and long term.

In the next four months, the group will be discussing solutions and expects to launch two public-opinion surveys and independent financial studies about each potential strategy.

Panelists said the impacts of losing Caltrain would be felt in the Bay Area for decades.

"It's a choice between Caltrain and building six more (freeway) lanes. Child asthma attacks are one of the most prevalent uses of emergency rooms," Beall said of the health impacts of increased vehicle pollutants.

Cohen said studies show that people who took public transportation in the Bay Area on average spent $5,400 less on transportation than drivers and as a group emitted 42 percent less greenhouse gases.

The Bay Area is relying in part on infill, higher-density housing to solve its residential needs in the next 25 years. A selling point of that housing, and one that many cities are relying on to meet Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) quotas for housing, is nearby access to train service up and down the Peninsula.

Losing Caltrain would have "grave implications" for such residential projects if weekend and night services were cut, Cohen said.

Caltrain is also an essential part of employee recruitment and retention for Bay Area companies, Dan McCoy, associate director of transportation at Genentech, said. Resolving transportation issues are crucial to the future of Bay Area business and regional way of life, he said.

He urged participants to look at the number of vacant buildings along 101, and said an improving economy could fill many of those up.

"We're only one economic recovery from a big, big problem," he said.

But Speier said the problem isn't insurmountable.

"Remember, Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps. No one thought it was possible before. (For) Caltrain, compared to the challenges that faced Hannibal, that's easy."

Related story:

Caltrain faces $30M gap, 'drastic' cutbacks

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Like this comment
Posted by too much bureaucracy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 21, 2011 at 6:02 pm

There is too much government bureaucracy in all these different transportation systems. We should merge them all into a single agency so they can all be funded fairly. That includes public transit systems, highways, and local roads.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Let's start with retaining only the most profitable trains first, and expand out from there. If we are able to maintain peak commute times, perhaps there will be an option of adding a periodic train or two later on. Once there, we can look at smaller DMUs, vs the old locomotives.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Caltrain's yearly Ridership report show that during the weekday about 8500 unique people, from San Jose's 1+M population, and 2,500 unique people from San Francisco's 800,000+ population, board trains headed north and south. Together, this very small group generate about 55% of the passenger traffic of the whole Caltrain system on a weekday basis. These 11,000 unique people constitute less than .4% of 3+M living in Caltrain's Peninsula service area.

Looking forward at Caltrain’s funding problems, and understanding the extremely high costs of government-managed/subsidized transportation systems, the operating/maintenance costs of this system can be shown to be about $8+B for the coming 30 years. That’s $8+B providing transportation for no more than 18,000-20,000 unique people a day.

Our Bay Area highway system, on the other hand, provides perhaps half-million(estimated) "trips" for vehicles of all kinds for the 6.5+M residents, and who knows how many travelers who pass through the Bay Area on a daily basis. There is no one in the Bay Area who is not dependent on the goods that are delivered, and the services that are facilitated, on Highway 101 and Highway 280. Caltrain, on the other hand, outside of transporting this small segment of our population, does not enable our general economy, as these two highways do.

Caltrain needs to be terminated, and any/all public dollars intended for its future improvement redirected to our very neglected, and very useful, highway system.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2011 at 9:07 am

The headline says it all. At long last some really sensible ideas. Merge transit agencies into one and stop eating the seed corn.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2011 at 9:09 am

This is the wrong headline for the thread. The Merge transit is a much better headline. Please change it to what the article headline is.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 22, 2011 at 9:50 am

Finally, we’re hearing some ideas worth considering.

Absolutely, I agree that there needs to be a comprehensive, integrated, coordinated, networked, multi-modal public mass transit system in the Bay Area. There are now over a dozen independent transit operators, each grasping for insufficient subsidies and each struggling for survival. Caltrain is not alone in that regard.

Ordinarily, one would turn to the MTC and ask that organization to become the coordinating manager—the ‘umbrella’ -- of all these transit operators. However, the MTC has not shown us much concern for anything other than their own institutional ambitions.

Let’s face it; Caltrain is severely flawed. This is spelled out in several entries on this blog: Web Link

In order to justify any support from the residents and taxpayers of the Peninsula, Caltrain needs to get their own house in order. The press has, in recent weeks, let us know about excess in salaries and headcount.

Also, Caltrain has been fixated on HSR and their promise of vast upgrades to the corridor, as if that would solve much of their operating cost difficulties. It won't.

There are ideological differences concerning public mass transit. Those on the right will object to the need for tax based subsidies to sustain the transit needs of a relatively small proportion of the population.

Those on the left are – I’m sorry to say this – willing to throw tax dollars at every problem without taking a hard look at what that problem really is. To politicians, supporting public services are a good way to please constituents. But, doing it badly fails all of us.

The either/or conversation is useless; that is, either we have transit or we have gridlock. Reality is far more complicated than that.

Regardless of what happens, what we do need is a thorough “house cleaning” within Caltrain. Supporting the move to “Save Caltrain” with tax based permanent subsidies comes at a price to us, and should come at a price to Caltrain.

Here are seven conditions I would impose on any agreement to support Caltrain’s survival:

1.We want an independent audit from Caltrain; a complete examination of their books.

2. We also want an independent management consulting firm that specializes in urban and regional mass transit to analyze and assess their organization and management structure, with recommendations for updating, especially for their financing.

3. We want to see a revised strategic plan from Caltrain conceived without high-speed rail participation. Also, especially under the current circumstances, we want a termination of the MOU agreement between Caltrain and the Rail Authority. There's no longer a reason for it.

4. We need them to drop their electrification obsession. DEMUs (see Wikipedia) will do the same job as electrification and EMUs, but for a great deal less capital development investment. It's our money and we want it spent wisely.

5. We want a complete restructuring of the non-functional, rubber-stamp JPB. We want elected representation from each and every city on the Caltrain corridor on such an expanded Board. And we want this Board empowered with greater decision-making, accountability and oversight authority.

6. We want a break-up of the several layers and overlapping organizations led by a single CEO. Too many pies, with only one and the same finger in them all. It reeks of multiple conflicts of interest. (Mike Scanlon, Executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority and as the general manager/CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District. CEO of Caltrain and SamTrans. Board chair for the American Public Transportation Association.) That's a shell game and conflict of interest.

7. We want an airtight Caltrain agreement that they will not admit any other rail operators (besides UPRR and themselves) on the rail corridor without the concurrence of ALL the corridor cities.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Martin Engle’s suggestions are fine, but probably don’t go far enough.

Here are a few suggestions that are more business-oriented:

Need a complete financial audit, as well as an operational audit, of this system. The financial audit would demand that all money spent on this system, to date, be accounted for.

Need a threshold to determine basis for tax-subsidized/government-operated transportation systems. (This implies a test for the continued existence of such systems.)

Need a basis for cost/benefit trade-offs to be made.

Need a valid, Caltrans-generated, operational model for H.101/H.280
that tracks current use and accurately predicts future growth.
(A 2003 CEQA statement on the Caltrans website suggests that such a model exists.)

Need Caltrans-generated cost estimates to increase H.101/H.280 capacity by 10%, 20%, 30%, etc.

First order estimates of 30-year Caltrain operations costs is about $9 billion (this includes pension payouts). Infrastructure costs, and other finance-related costs, are not included. Caltrain should be tasked to provide a meaningful 30-year operational cost estimate, so that the public has some idea how large the costs for operating the service is.

Currently, less than 25% of the yearly budget costs (operations + capital) are recovered at the box. More money needs to be recovered needs to be increased.

All of the support costs for Caltrain that are borne by member City/Counties are not currently tracked by Caltrain, or any other agencies, for that matter. Such costs include police and fire teams responding to accidents on the tracks, staff time of member Cities/Counties spent dealing with Caltrain issues, and so on. There should be no “hidden” costs associated with any government-operated systems, including Caltrain.

Caltrain ridership data suggests that many users of Caltrain ride less than 20 miles. It would seem that buses are a much better way to provide transportation for such people, rather than trains. The transportation agencies need to figure out why people using Caltrain, rather than the buses, and do what's necessary to get them onto more appropriate surface transportation.

Highway expansion costs run with in the range of $1M-$30M per mile. Investments in highway expansion/enlargement have a 30-100 year lifetime. "Investment" in Caltrain operational costs goes up in smoke, as most of the of these funds are spent on labor and benefits of the personnel operating the trains. Moreover, Caltrain capital expenditures generally only benefit rail users.

Common sense use of the public’s money should not be seen as something that is “ideological”. California is in very deep financial trouble. Spending money on Caltrain to the tune of $9-$10B over the next thirty years makes no sense at all. It’s time to come to terms with these vast costs, and recognize that our highway system, and (if necessary) buses, are the best investment in public transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Q Why do people use trains instead of buses for trips less than 20 miles?

A. Time. If you need to get from say Palo Alto to say Redwood City, it takes 10 minutes by train approx. with 2 stops. No idea how long it takes by bus but I certainly can't make it in the same time, station to station, by car which doesn't have to stop at bus stops.
Trains are faster than buses and people will take a train rather than a bus when there is an option.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm

We have a regional agency already that we can look at to see how that works: the MTC. One of the problems is that the counties don't all feel that MTC is giving them the amount that they are due. VTA management doesn't trust MTC at all, feeling that MTC has a megalomaniac tendency with its own agenda that is not responsive to local needs. You need extraordinary care in setting this up and in oversight to make sure that the results are fair and equitable throughout the region.

Like this comment
Posted by TransitWaste
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2011 at 7:20 pm

It is time for Caltrain to go. We are better off having BART travese the same tracks. The management of SamTrans is clueless and waste money. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] He is head of SamTrans risk management and the Transit Police. Where can be a job as head of risk management without any prior experience or formal education? Just at SamTrans. Get rid of him and get a real risk manager, someone that knows what he is doing.

Like this comment
Posted by Casey the Engineer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2011 at 7:59 am

Consolidation of public transportation agencies is long overdue!

Merge Caltrain and BART. Merge VTA and Samtrans. Merge AC Transit and Contra Cost Transit agencies. Merge Golden Gate Transit and all the other transit operators in Marin and Sonoma. Merge Solono and Napa transit agencies. These five and San Francisco would bring the total number of agencies down to six organization from more than two dozen at present.

Next step would be to squeeze these six down to four: Bay Rail (BART, Caltrain);North Bay Transit (Marin, Sonoma, Solano, and Napa), East Bay & Peninsula Transit (Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, and Contra Costa); and San Francisco Muni.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 23, 2011 at 11:00 am

Consolidation of transit agencies is fine with me, with the necessary goal of saving dollars, improving decisions, and minimizing bureaucracy - I have just one condition - it cannot be based in San Francisco.

Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 23, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Casey and others--

How may BILLION dollars will it take to replace CalTrain with BART? That's a serious question, and I'd like a serious answer. Also tell us where the money would come from.

Like this comment
Posted by Hidden Costs of Driving
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2011 at 8:42 am

From Christopher Mims: "The U.S. has as many as eight parking spaces per car. That's more than a billion parking spaces, or one for every person in China, should they need them once they're done buying all our post-crash assets for ji¨£os on the yu¨¢n."

With the advent of the car, the business model has gone from smaller neighborhoods with basic services and stores being displaced by regional shopping. Shopping centers that have decimated the smaller businesses in the region by encouraging driving away from your local stores to the shopping center. Eeconomy of scale allows pricing of goods at a lower price to entice you away from your local business. Those bigger roads and parking lots are paid for in a way that hides the added cost from the consumer. You may save 20 cents on a gallon of milk, but the cost of car ownership, fuel, insurance,etc and the larger costs of building and maintaining roads, parking lots, and other structure is paid by higher taxes and the eoconomic displacement of workers. You may see that 20 cents lower price, but not recognize the cost of driving to the store as a tax burden being placed on you.
The cost of auto transportation often has bigger costs than the higher costs of finding consumer goods in a local setting.

Like this comment
Posted by Time to Reorg
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2011 at 8:48 am

Combine these big regional transit agencies so they will reduce bureaucracy AND collaborate instead of protecting their individual budgets and turf.

We need the train. What we need is better bus transit connections to the trains...and to the airport. These agencies don't collaborate because they are too busy protecting "their" organizations. The will only change if they are reorganized.

I want to support public transit, but they will never get it right organized as they are now.

Like this comment
Posted by psa188
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:45 am

It's ironic to see the grossly misnamed Silicon Valley "Leadership" Group involved in the effort to save Caltrain. For the past decade or so, this loathsome bunch has been advocating extending BART to San Jose at the expense of just about every other transportation improvement in the south bay. The 2000 Measure A sales tax increase ballot language listed 14 specific projects or project areas which included:

Improving Caltrain by double-tracking to Gilroy and electrifying from Palo Alto to Gilroy.

Increasing the level of Caltrain service.

and connecting Caltrain with the Dumbarton Rail line.

Sadly, these and other promised projects have been sacrificed at the alter of BART, and this group hornswaggled voters into passing yet another BART tax in 2008. (some folks never learn.) Now this group wants YET ANOTHER TAX to bail out Caltrain.

Santa Clara County residents already pay enough in transit tax, most of which goes into one gold-plated, over-designed project that uses the wrong route. The last thing we need in this lousy economy is more taxes.

The suggestion to reduce bureaucracy by combining transit agencies is a good one.

Like this comment
Posted by Commuter
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:46 am

This comment is aimed at people who continue to make ridiculous arguments like Wayne Martin's as to why we should get rid of public transportation. You are correct that in this country more people will drive and take public transport. But is this because there is a lack of reasonably frequent service be it bus or train? And is there a lack of reasonable frequent service because there is a lack of money? As our population gets older (and continues to work!) do you really think all those people should be driving? Or are you going to be complaining about forking tax dollars for OutReach & Paratransist for those "few people" too? What about kids going to school- Mommy & Daddy has to drive them everyday? The fact is if there was a reasonable public transport system where a single fare could get you from SJ to SF people would take it for fun on weekends and for work on weekdays. Caltrain & the transportation authorities should be looking beyond just "saving" themselves and setting up to be the backbone service they are supposed to be.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

I support consolidation in theory. What worries me is that the bureaucracy will not eliminate one level, but just add another at the top. Bureaucracies tend to preserve themselves at all costs.

Like this comment
Posted by Remember Measure A
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I too remember all of the promises of Measure A in 2000, and voted for it. Sadly, none of it took place. I was particularly fond of the planned extension of Caltrain across the Dumbarton right of way.

Like this comment
Posted by Is only going to get wors
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Caltrain's economic situation is only going to get worst with suicides that keep happening, and Caltrain has not done a good job at fencing all along Palo alto tracks. One of these days someone is going to suit, and Caltrain's will deserve it because they have fail to fence and cover access to the tracks, also they do not trim the bushes, which make it hard to see if there is any person inside the tracks or not.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Creating more effecient transit agencies is fine but the real issue is funding. And it seems that everyone ignored the obvious answer on this: the employers. Caltrain is mainly a commuter service. So who are the main beneficiaries of Caltrain? The employers who locate in lower cost business parks or industrial areas where their employees can't live. Let them pay for the benefit of Caltrain.

Consolidating transit agencies sounds nice but what happens when one of the consolidated agency's unions goes on strike and there is no alternative.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Electrification should be by a private contract, installing and maintaining the electrification and supplying prime movers paid for by horsepower hours.

Like this comment
Posted by Coffee
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Wake up folks. They are letting Caltrain bleed to death so the white night Highspeed Rail can come "save" it. There are bigger forces at work here. The Peninsula is just a place in between Point A and Point B to them. San Francisco would just as soon see Caltrain go away and be replaced by a high speed rail that expresses its way through the Peninsula with no stops. They are competing for the high tech jobs to fill the new Transbay Tower and South of Market area and the associated tax revenue. They don't want to be the bedroom community for the high tech employers in Silicon Valley. Santa Clara County is willing to sell out their consituents just to get the precious Diridon station and the legitimacy that San Jose has always desperately craved, not to mention the development that goes around it. San Mateo County's piece of the action is a high speed station in Redwood City to provide the catalyst for growth they lack and the small Burlingames can take a hike with the rest of the smaller towns on the Peninsula that don't seem to matter and are just in the way. The big guys are making their development a zero sum game where they win and the small towns and now too-inconvenient-to-get to-jobs on the peninsula lose. Don't know how to outfox them as the chickens already seem to have flown out of the coop with this manufactured "crisis."

Like this comment
Posted by Upset Taxpayer
a resident of another community
on Feb 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Heck no, no new taxes! For anything! Until these politicians and bureaucrats can learn to be responsible with "other peoples money" they should not get a dime more. It wont be long before all these cities up and down the peninsula will be bankrupted by their spending and compensation/benefits plans and will extorting more money from us to keep up the golden pay/benefit packages these city "public servants" are getting.

We don't need 10+ cities in such a small location with multiple/duplicate services (sometimes right down the street from each other) and ridiculous pay packages. You have public safety guys pulling down $200k and retiring at 50, double dipping, and fleecing the system. We need to put our foot down. NO NEW TAXES-PERIOD!!!

Like this comment
Posted by collegestudent08
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm

We all need to get off our high horses and realize that everybody needs to help. Caltrain is one of the greatest and highly convenient forms of transportation we have in our area. Tax increases aren't that scary and it is for the greater good. Stop being afraid to spend a little money and chip in already.

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

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