More than 200 Friends of Caltrain met on Saturday (Jan. 29) to find ways to keep the Peninsula railway from going into what one transportation official called "a death spiral" that threatens to shut down the West's second oldest passenger train service.
The coalition of riders, environmentalists, businesses and rail advocates packed SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos. SamTrans, because of its own budget deficit, has announced it will reduce funding to Caltrain by $10 million.
The conference was organized by former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, and the two morning panels were moderated by Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner Sue Lempert and by Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson.
Caltrain faces a $30 million budget deficit that could cause it to collapse, officials warned. Services could be gutted as early as July. If that happens, night, off-peak, weekend and event trains would end. Only peak commuter times would remain, officials said.
The Caltrain Joint Powers Board is expected to announce a fiscal emergency at its Feb. 3 meeting at SamTrans headquarters, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos.
Kishimoto, who is spearheading the Friends group, asked the standing-room-only crowd to envision the Peninsula without Caltrain.
"Unless we educate ourselves, we may wake up one morning and find that what we take for granted has been taken out from under our feet," she said.
California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a keynote speaker, said a collapse would doom drivers to stop-and-go traffic. Transportation officials have estimated that forcing Caltrain's 40,000 weekly riders back on the freeways would be the equivalent of adding three lanes in each direction to U.S. Highway 101.
"You can count on me front and center ... to make a case for it," she said, promising to work with city councils throughout the Bay Area.
But she cautioned that Friends of Caltrain will be fighting an uphill battle. "You've got a big job ahead of you," she said.
Caltrain is the only transit agency in the Bay Area without a dedicated source of funding. While it earns about 47 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, roughly 40 percent of its funding comes from three Peninsula transportation agencies: San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA and San Francisco's MTA, and all three are cash strapped, Speier said.
But Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, the other keynote speaker, said grassroots efforts, when done correctly, are highly successful. It's how Yosemite National Park was created and how redwood trees in Northern California were saved, he said.
Speier said the same kind of energy that groups have put into the California high-speed rail project should be put into saving Caltrain.
"The Friends of Caltrain is in a position to truly make a difference," she said. "Let's get to work. There's a vision to create and a train to catch," she said, to applause.
Jessica Zenk, Silicon Valley Leadership Group transportation director, said 80 potential solutions to save Caltrain emerged during a Jan. 21 summit of more than 200 business and government leaders at Stanford University.
Some ideas included bidding out the system to private operators, reforming the three transit agencies into a single regional agency and building a Caltrain fare into sports tickets, she said.
San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Joint Powers Board, admitted that reducing services to plug up the deficit could be the "death spiral" if the result is lower ridership and farebox revenue.
Some riders said Caltrain needs to find a way to add more service, not less, in order to make rail travel more appealing. Joan Marx, a bicyclist from Palo Alto, said Caltrain should find ways to make travel times that equal or are less than vehicle travel.
Sybil Vasche, an SRI International employee and longtime Caltrain user, said many people cannot afford to live where they work and rely on the trains. Train service could end south of San Jose, Caltrain officials have said. Many people who commute by train from Gilroy will be impacted, Vasche said.
"It will be devastating to a lot of people. We don't want to quit our jobs now. This is not the time to quit," she said.
Jim Bigelow of the Redwood City/San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce said as part of an emergency fix a $5.5 million subsidy for the Dumbarton rail extension, which would bring rail across the San Francisco Bay to Union City, could be temporarily transferred to Caltrain. The funds are in reserve but the bridge-repair project is has been stalled for years.
During a brainstorming session, several people put together short- and long-term funding strategies.
In the immediate term, the group suggested reallocating money from other agencies, having a toll on the Dumbarton Bridge specifically to fund Caltrain and "congestion pricing" -- charging higher tolls during peak commute hours.
Shirley Ingalls, a former member of the Mountain View Environmental Sustainability Task Force Transit and Transportation Working Group, said Silicon Valley businesses, many of which rely on Caltrain to bring employees into the valley, could be asked to come up with funds to cover the $30 million deficit, even if it is just a loan.
Chuck Harvey, Caltrain deputy CEO, said during a panel discussion that in the long term, modernizing the system will make it efficient and attract more riders. Electrification would reduce costs by 10 to 20 percent, he said.
Modernization has already proven its worth, he said. After the Baby Bullet trains were introduced in 2004 ridership increased 44 percent and farebox revenue went up by nearly 100 percent, he said.
As next steps, Kishimoto said the Silicon Valley Leadership Group plans town hall meetings and is raising $100,000 for polling and financial and economic analyses. And groups within Friends of Caltrain said they will work with Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel on pushing for a regional approach to public transportation.
Nadia Naik, a co-founder of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), said the grassroots effort remains a crucial part of saving Caltrain and of developing any regional solution to transit funding.
"This allows everyone to understand the big issues and people take ownership. There is probably a solution, But the top-down doesn't work. It's got to be from the bottom up," she said.
There was virtually no discussion of the controversial high-speed-rail project that would at present run up the Caltrain right-of-way between San Jose and San Francisco. The two leading design alternatives are surface tracks or an elevated structure. Deep tunneling has been ruled out due to costs and trenching, with or without a cover, would require contributions from local communities.