Group seeks to stem Caltrain 'death spiral'

Friends of Caltrain summit worked on short- and long-term solutions to Caltrain's woes

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.

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Posted by commuter
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:01 am

Caltrain is just as important to the Bay Area as Highway 101. The highway has a dedicated source of tax money (including sales taxes and income taxes). Caltrain deserves the same. We need to reorganize our Bay Area transportation funding so that all important projects are properly funded.

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Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:37 am

"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."

By such calcs, CalTrain is heavily subsidized at present.

Why is CalTrain unable to subsist on ticket revenues only? Why not treat this entity like a private enterprise, by, say, increasing fares and reducing routes?

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:42 am

Sounds like another group that will talk and talk and talk and then talk some more. WIth Kishimoto as one of the heads I see little hope for them coming up with solutions for saving Caltrain. Let's be honest, public transportation only works well in densely populated areas.
Obviously to save Caltrain, they will have to increase ridership and increase revenue. How can this be done? It is pretty obvious--increase frequency of service and increase fares. There I have done the work for the "friends of Caltrain". Sitting around whining about "too much traffic" is not a solution.

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Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2011 at 10:53 am

I have ridden Caltrain for many years depending on where I was working at the time - San Francisco, San Mateo and San Jose as my major destinations.

Ridership increases dramatically when the economy is good - it's not proportional; when it gets good the traffic gets awful and ridership increases more significantly. Boom years 1999 and 2006 had standing room only on rush hour trains.

--"Why not treat this entity like a private enterprise, by, say, increasing fares and reducing routes?" Because having people take the train is a benefit to those who stay here. Caltrain is "competing" with 101 & 280 (which are 100% subsided - have you ever paid a toll on these roads?)

--"Sounds like another group that will talk and talk and talk and then talk some more..." - I surely hope not, although I think it will be tough to pass a new tax these days no matter how much we need the benefit.

I would like to see some of the HSR opponents - the ones who claim to want to "see it done right" seize this opportunity to do Caltrain right and only leave space for HSR done right. That's a whole other story but assuming Caltrain was a successful and vibrant transportation link conceivably HSR could be persuaded / cajoled / influenced / forced into a compatible mode of service. Caltrain does own the right of way.

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Posted by Kristine
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2011 at 10:54 am

I find it weird that the san jose bracket is so small. No wonder the 101 gets so clogged.

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Posted by Experienced Cyclist
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:04 am

Dear JA3+,

I hear that the Public Library is subsidized as well. Why can't they be self-supporting by charging rental fees on books?

Public Transit in general and train transit in particular are what have classically been referred to as "public goods". Even if you are exclusively a driver and never take advantage of Caltrain, you are going to be significantly worse off if Caltrain goes belly up. We as a society need to figure out how we are going to support and encourage the use of mass transit. Bump up the gas tax and split the proceeds with the public transit agencies.

By the same reasoning, I am happy to pay property tax for schools, even though my kids have graduated from the PA public schools already. It is a public good that everyone in our is educated to at least the high school level. This is just part of the price of living in a civilized society.

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Posted by Jimmy
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:15 am

Yes, and all these "Public Goods" goodies are the reason why a lot of municipalities are heading to financial ruin!

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Posted by Transportation Watcher
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:16 am

Start charging drivers the real cost of using 101 and 280. That will free up some money from the "cash strapped" transit operators like Samtrans and VTA who are refusing to cooperate to create a regional transit system that works for all commuters.

Why should train riders be the only commuters who are required to pay for the transportation infrastructure they use? (That new 101 flyover in Mountain View wasn't free, folks. Train riders helped to pay for it with their tax dollars even though they don't use it.)

While we are at it, the press should take a very close look at SB375. As the state and county force cities to build infill housing which they say will make cities eligible for more transit funding...I'd like to seee some teeth built into that promise. HOW will the state guarantee that transit will follow the development of infill housing when they haven't delivered on that promise before now. The treatment of Caltrain right now is an indicator of what we can expect after all the infill is built. Our most important transit service is in danger of extinction?! SHOW us how the state is going to make this work.

PA Weekly...I see some serious awards for the writer who digs into this story. WHY are you silent on this critical issue? THIS is the real story. Caltrain's troubles are just a symptom of a bigger problem that we must solve if we are going to keep our economic engine humming. Developers and unions own Sacramento. They are driving decision-making under the cover of "green" legislation. Our newspapers need to follow the development of regulations related to SB375 VERY closely. Most people don't even know what is going on. If the regional planners don't get this right, it has the potential to be devastating to Peninsula communities and our local economies, including Palo Alto.

Caltrain's problems are just the latest symptom of our regional planning dysfunction. What I would give for a decent reporter who'd be willing to shine some light the real issues here.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 12:36 pm

@ commuter:

You are claiming that CalTrain is as important as Highway 101?

Are you SERIOUS?

Less than 1% of the population rides CalTrain. Approximately 100% of the local population (and visitors) use Highway 101.

Something is wrong when the 15,000-18,000 riders of a nearly bankrupt train think that their choice of transportation to and from work is more important than a road that is used weekly by approximately 2 Million people on the peninsula.

CalTrain is broken. Every year, they complain that they don't have enough money to make ends meet. They have raised their prices to the point where many people can no longer afford a ticket to work. Now, the 15,000-18,000 daily riders want the rest of us to subsidize the cost of their highly limited mode of transportation.

I can't wait until the HSR (if actually built) is whining for subsidies after they raise their costs over and over again. Rail travel is limited to businesses along the tracks...and for people who have to pay for parking. For everyone else, it is cheaper to drive (since 99.999% of those people will own a car anyway).

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Caltrain has a ridership of 18,000 - 19,000 on weekdays, as compared to the 3,500,000 population of the three county area it serves.

Car owners pay taxes through the federal, state & sales taxes. You should ask your state assembly & state senators and city council members where that money is going; but I would guess that some of it is being siphoned off for other purposes.

Caltrain is a public transit system, but it should also work on developing it's revenue sources - NOT BY raising taxes on people who don't use it, but by attracting more riders and finding customers who would want to use it for other purposes.

Why did Google set up it's own private bus system across the Bay Area that services 1200 employess/day? Why didn't they use Caltrain as part of their solution? Yahoo has about 350 employees on their bus system? There are other revenue generation possibilities that Caltrain should be investigating, as well as spending reductions.

Unfortunately I see the "Friends of Caltrain" as well intentioned, but not necessarily the problem solvers and go-getters that Caltrain will need to make it a more viable system.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm

> Less than 1% of the population rides CalTrain. Approximately 100% of the local population (and visitors) use Highway 101


Freeway lanes can carry about 1500 vehicles per hour. At 1.2 persons per vehicle and 4 lanes, the peak rush-hour throughput of highway 101 is 7200 people per hour per direction.

Six hours of rush (6 - 9 AM and 4 - 7 PM) = 43,200 distinct persons driving past any given place on 101.

That is a very very very small fraction of the local population.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Anonymous--I think the point that Nayeli was trying to make is that everyone uses 101 at some point--not everyone at the same time.
Could it be that the statement that caltrain is in "a death spiral"" is another of the well known Palo Alto myths together with "too much traffic", "walkable neighborhoods" and "Stanford is the evil empire"?

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:18 pm

@ Anonymous:


EVERYONE who lives in the Bay Area CAN ride on Hwy 101 WITHOUT having to pay an extra fee for it.

Nearly all of the MILLIONS of residents here in the Bay Area drive on local highways at least once a week. Now, not all 2-3.5 Million people drive on Hwy 101 at 5 PM (although it seems like it sometimes), but I suspect that there are many more drivers on Hwy 101 in the peninsula in a single hour than there are on CalTrain in an entire day.

I can't believe that you are going to compare Highway 101 with the 18,000 people who ride CalTrain. Those statistics that you are using are somewhat skewed too. Last year, I saw statistic that indicated millions of vehicles on Highway 101 per week. In fact, the San Mateo-Hayward and Dumbarton bridges averages nearly 100,000 drivers each per day! Each of those bridges have nearly FIVE TIMES the daily ridership of CalTrain -- and those are just two connections to Hwy 101!

The bottom line?

A subsidy for CalTrain would ONLY benefit the 18,000 people who ride CalTrain regularly and the people who work for that broken, mismanaged entity.

*BTW -- thank you, svatoid. You raise good points.

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Posted by Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Apparently, some believe that cleaner air is only of value when you have money to pay for it. Forget about the cost of delay. Adding Caltrain commuters to peak hour 101 traffic WILL worsen air pollution on all days, and probably add to the number of spare the air days we experience. This in turn reduces federal subsidies for highway funding paid to Caltrans for the Bay Area from federal gas taxes. Most local freeways are now built with sales taxes, but maintained with gas taxes, regardless of whether a given local motorist who pays those taxes ever drives a given stretch of freeway. That is why some consider highways subsidized. Muni, Samtrans, and VTA could easily maintain their Caltrain subsidies, except they are mostly funded by recessionized sales taxes, and have obligations to operate and maintain many underutilized bus routes in each of their service areas.

They call it Public Transportation for a reason! Since no transit agency succeeds on fairbox revenue alone, we could consider getting rid of them all...but then air pollution and traffic delays would be the least of our problems.

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Posted by Experienced Cyclist
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Dear Nayeli,

"A subsidy for CalTrain would ONLY benefit the 18,000 people who ride CalTrain regularly and the people who work for that broken, mismanaged entity."

Sorry, but this is clearly not a true statement: if Caltrain were to cease to exist tomorrow, how would those 18,000 people get to work? Some of them may not own cars, but I'll bet most of them do. The net result is more traffic on the roads, which redounds to the detriment of everyone. Even if you personally never do anything but walk, it means more air pollution and other negative externalities.

This is what I meant when I said that Caltrain is a public good. If it has to be subsidized, so be it. Let's figure out a model that works to achieve that.

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Posted by andreas
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:59 pm

The Dumbarton Bridge carries 81,000 vehicles daily.
The San Mateo Bridge carries 93,000 vehicles daily.
(Source: Wikipedia.)
Combined, that's 174,000 vehicles that pour onto 101.

The Bay Bridge carries 270,000 vehicles per day. (Source: Wikipedia.) Many of those go to San Francisco, but many also come to work on the peninsula.

That's easily 250,000 vehicles per day on 101. At 1.2 persons per car, that's 300,000 people per day on 101 (which is 16.7X the Caltrain ridership).

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm

@ Experienced Cyclist:

I disgree.

If people didn't take CalTrain to work, they could always take a bus (most of which operate well below capacity). If a portion of those 18,000 people chose to drive, many might consider a carpool.

Still, those 18,000 riders would only add 9,000 northbound and 9,000 southbound drivers on Hwy 101 or Hwy 280. That is well within their capacities.

BTW, I am NOT saying that we should do away with CalTrain. There has to be a way to fix this never-ending fiscal nightmare that doesn't result in taxpayers being forced to subsidize the cost of 18,000 riders on a poorly managed train system.

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Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Let Caltrain die in peace!

The three counties Caltrain serves has a combined population of 3.4 million people. Caltrain serves 18,000 people a day. That means 1 in 200 people ride Caltrain. If those Caltrain riders joined the rest of us on the highway, I don't think we're going to notice an increase of one-half of one percent in traffic.

And think of all the good uses for the tax dollars we'll save by not providing a tax subsidy to Caltrain anymore!

I say let Caltrain die. Maybe run it once a month on a Saturday so the kids and the train buffs can get their fill of nostalgia.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm

@ Andreas:

Exactly. In fact, there are approximately 3.5 Million people living from San Francisco to Gilroy. About 18,000 people use CalTrain each day. That means 3.482 Million people do not use CalTrain.

I just wonder about any cost/benefit analysis (per person) for CalTrain. I am perplexed that there is a $100M+ budget to service just 18,000 individuals riding the train. That is a lot of money -- an operating cost of more than $5500 per person each year.

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Posted by Experienced Cyclist
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Dear Nayeli,

Can you document that Caltrain is "poorly managed"? Compared to what? Compared to other publicly operated train facilities? Or are you merely asserted that it is a public agency, therefore it is, ipso facto, poorly managed? Is it more or less "poorly managed" than, say, the San Mateo County Transit system, which runs the busses you propose as an alternative? (They are also subsidized by our precious taxpayer dollars, are they not?) Or do you assert that they are "poorly managed" simply because they operate at a deficit? By which standard, every government in sight at this point is poorly managed. Who bears the responsibility for that? Have you voted lately?

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Hi Experienced Cyclist...

You wrote: --> "Can you document that Caltrain is "poorly managed"?"

Well, this article says that they are $30 Million in the hole! It seems like a broken record. The last couple of years, they complained that they were in the hole and needed to raise fares. Unfortunately, they were STILL in the hole. Next year, I suspect that they will cry about being in the hole again.

So, yes, I do think that operating at a CONTINUAL deficit is indicative of a poorly managed entity.

BTW, I do vote (thank you for asking). I moved to California about two years ago. I realize that California itself has been operating at a deficit; thus, I think that, as a whole, California may be just as poorly managed as CalTrain. As for voting: Since I am relatively new to California, I haven't been responsible for repeatedly voting these longterm members of the status quo into local offices or into the state legislature.

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Posted by Don G.
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:56 pm

To increase ridership interest they could have a couple steam train engines or golden age of railroading-type of engines that burn clean burning fuel or are made to look like or sound like retro engines. Make it fun!

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Should we let the Bay Bridge fail because it can't pay for itself with tolls? Should we have let the airlines fail in 2001 because they couldn't survive without a massive federal bailout? I'm glad that our civic leaders have a better understanding of how we fund transportation than the people on this forum do.

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Posted by Reputation counts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Two years ago kishimoto told us that we needed HSR. Them a few months later she changed her mind. Now she tells us that we need to save Caltrain. What will she say on a few months? It would behoove Friends of Caltrain to get a more dependable and honest person to lead them if they want to be taken seriously and believed about what they say.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 7:17 pm

@ Donald:

You wrote: --> "Should we let the Bay Bridge fail because it can't pay for itself with tolls? Should we have let the airlines fail in 2001 because they couldn't survive without a massive federal bailout?"

If the Bay Bridge...or an airline...was only serviced by 18,000 people, then, yes, I would allow it to "fail."

The question would be better served if we asked whether a single ferry across the bay should be subsidized by ALL taxpayers if only a very, very tiny amount of people ever used it.

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Highway 101 is maintained with federal funds paid for by taxpayers all over the country although only a tiny fraction of them ever use it. Bay Area freeways would be unsustainable if everyone outside the region refused to let their tax money be used to pay for them.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:34 pm

@ Donald:

I think that your claim is a bit disingenuous. Most of Highway 101's paving and upkeep come from taxpayers in the state of California. Tax dollars pay for ALL ROADS -- and those roads are free to use by the taxpayers who paid for them.

Thus, any taxpayer can use any of the local and state roads that they paid for at any time.

CalTrain is merely used by 18,000 riders out of ~3.5 Million residents in the peninsula. Period. Approximately 3.482 Million local residents do NOT use it. Thus, the people who would benefit from a new taxpayer subsidy are those 18,000 riders and the people who actually work for CalTrain.

I am almost to the point where I think that CalTrain should charge $27 per daily ticket (about double what it is now for a round trip ticket on CalTrain to San Francisco) for those people who still feel the need to take the train to work -- since THEY are the only people who use it. Why should we subsidize the cost of travel for about 1/2 of 1% of the peninsula population?

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2011 at 9:52 pm

You are wrong about the funding source for highway maintenance. Most funding for local roads and freeways comes from federal general funds. Note that 101 is US 101, a federal highway. Yes, my tax dollars pay for all roads, even those that I don't use, but they are not all free and not all available for my use. My tax dollars pay for toll bridges in the Bay Area, toll roads in Los Angeles and toll turnpikes in New Jersey. Also, I cannot use Hwy 101 at any time I want because bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited. I need to have a motor vehicle that is licensed, registered and insured (all of which cost money over and above my tax dollars) in order to use it.

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Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Jan 31, 2011 at 10:12 pm


Before you start crticizing Caltrain, please tell us which transit systems collect more than 47% of their cost through fares.

I think you will find it is a very limited list.

Did you know that the Crosstown Shuttle and Embarcadero Shuttle in Palo Alto are free? Tell me what % of their costs that they collect.

That should show you the ridiculousness of your position.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:05 pm

How many commuters get to ride Caltrain all year long for a mere $155 with a GO pass paid for by their employers? Is that to fill seats that would otherwise be empty? Would there be more riders if we could all buy $155 annual passes? Would there be fewer if companies were charged more for GO passes?

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Posted by Carol_R
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:40 pm

I've forgotten - why wasn't BART extended down the Peninsula when it was first built - and affordable to build??? Didn't the existence of Southern Pacific (now CalTrain) have something to do with that?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2011 at 7:56 am


You ask a good question. Would cheaper fares alone increase ridership or does the service need to be improved to increase ridership?

Obviously it has to be both. Regardlesss of price, there are many people who could ride the train but the service does not meet their needs.

The baby bullets are great, but some people need the flexibility of non bullets for shorter commutes. These are so far apart that driving is often a more convenient option.

The zones system is not a great system for many people as they may want to use the train for say a 3 station ride, but because the stations are in different zones their fare is high.

They may want to travel one or both ways off peak and the length of the wait is offputting.

They may need a bus to get them from home to the station and the schedules are not practical.

They may need to use 3 different transport systems with 3 fares and even with use of the clipper, they are still paying a huge amount for 3 short rides.

They may work early shifts, or late shifts, and the off peak service doesn't suit them.

Ask people who work/live on the Caltrain corridor and ask them what would get them to use the train. I suspect the cost of the fare is not the only disadvantage.


You have no idea what you are talking about. Caltrain serves you every day even if you only use it for Giants games. I hardly use 101 even though I live less than 1 mile away. You may think that riders are the only ones that benefit, but apart from keeping cars off the road, it enables many people to benefit from their ability to ride the train.

Your child may have a teacher who uses the train and is able to grade homework while on the train. Your banking may be done by someone who is blind or disabled and able to be independent because of the train. The person sitting at the next table drinking large quantities of alcohol is not driving home because they can get home by train. All these things are benefiting you, even if you are not aware of it.

Your numbers for the whole of the Bay Area are worthless. Many of those people are using other forms of transport because Caltrain does not suit their needs. If you are going to try and do your ridiculous numbers game, at least use only those who live in the Caltrain corridor.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

@ Donald:

Even if you were correct about Hwy 101's funding, you are incorrect in that people are specifically funding it. Federal Interstate Highway funds are spent on ALL highways. As a result, taxpayers in Boston have the opportunity to use roads in Boston. Taxpayers in Michigan daily use roads in Michigan. Taxpayers in California use roads in California.

I think that it is a stretch to compare CalTrain with a federally funded interstate highway. It would be more akin to taxpayers in Boston subsidizing the cost of a ferry that is only used by 18,000 people. Of course, those who would benefit from a subsidy are those 18,000 riders who actually ride CalTrain, those who work FOR CalTrain and, possibly, some of the businesses located along CalTrain stations.

The other 3.48 Million (out of 3.5 Million along the peninsula) simply do not use it.

@ Resident:

You wrote: --> "You have no idea what you are talking about."

I don't? I suppose that you must have intimate knowledge into the causes of the CalTrain "spiral of death?" say that you are one of those people who don't use Hwy 101. But, you see, bringing up Hwy 101 in a discussion about CalTrain is still grasping the straw man. I didn't bring up the CalTrain and Hwy 101 comparison; I merely commented on the attempt at a comparison by others. IMHO, I think that it is a silly comparison of apples and oranges.

Regardless of how you look at it, CalTrain still only services 18,000 people. Yes, people have the POTENTIAL to use the train...but most still do not.

Why? Why do so few people use the train?

1. Cost -- It costs $13.00 for a round trip ticket to San Bruno or other stations in Zone 1. If a person works 250 days a year, that comes to $3250 per year. That is a lot of money for a ride to work. While some could argue that it is comparable with gas (or the cost of parking at work, as many try to insist), it is still quite a bit more money than a gallon of gas (at 25 miles to the gallon) and for MANY people who don't have to pay to park at work. This is compounded when you consider the decreased driving cost for those who carpool (splitting gas cost) and the fact that a car must be registered, inspected, insured and kept up even if you take CalTrain to work.

2. Weather -- On certain bad weather days, many people just don't want to walk to and from the station (either from home or work). My husband and I took CalTrain to a rainy Giants game with hardly anyone on the train (on a weekday). A worker explained that there are fewer riders during bad weather -- especially rainy days.

3. Distance -- CalTrain is feasible for people who live or work within a short walk or bike ride to the station. If you live or work a mile or more from the station (or a connecting mode of transportation), there is diminished demand to pay for the service. Unfortunately for CalTrain, there just aren't a plethora of businesses located along the tracks.

As for all of those people who I might interact with because they use the train: I doubt it. There are only 18,000 people who use the train. Out of 3.5 Million people living along the peninsula, the odds are that I would never meet most of them -- or that they couldn't find a different means to get to work.

Still, let me be clear: I am NOT saying that CalTrain should cease to exist. I am just arguing that it is not nearly as "vital" to the Bay Area as some people are insisting. Is it really worth raising everyone else's taxes in order to continually subsidize a small transportation entity that is enjoyed by so few but is perpetually in a fiscal hole?

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Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Feb 1, 2011 at 10:50 am

Do you get the feeling that those "train riders" are only good at or interested in personal attract to those who don't agree with them?

"Jackie Speier, a keynote speaker"...

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Posted by Caltrainrider
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 1, 2011 at 11:33 am

Caltrain not only keeps cars off the road, it keeps drunk drivers off the road with its' midnight trains and Giants game trains. I wish I understood why they spent $140 million on that brand new train maintenance facility in San Jose in 2007. They could certainly use that money now...

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Posted by Sue Dremann
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Feb 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Transportation Watcher and Nayeli, can you get in touch with me? I'm looking for people who don't think Caltrain should necessarily be saved. My e-mail is

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Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Feb 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm

If Caltrain riders cannot support Caltrain through fares, then they do not value the service, and it should be shut down.

If the Bay Bridge cannot support itself through tolls, then its drivers do not value its service, and it should be closed down.

If 101 and 280 cannot fund themselves via FastPass, then they should be closed.

Economics 101 guys, it is not that tough.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Comments on freeways and bridges -

Gasoline taxes help pay for freeways and bridges. It's not only coming from federal taxes.

You don't have to use a freeway in order to benefit from it - think trucking, groceries, clothing, etc. It all comes to you via the freeway at some point. So even though you take CalTrain every day - you are still using and deriving benefits from the freeways, bridges and local roads.

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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 2, 2011 at 6:26 pm

When Southern Pacific ran the peninsula commute line it lost money for decades. They begged to be allowed to abandon the commute service. In 1980 CalTrans got involved and ultimately the three counties served bought this known money-losing service from Southern Pacific with both eyes wide open, recognizing that the operation would have to be subsidized. As far as whether CalTrain should live and be subsidized or die, that ship sailed 30 years ago. Why all the fuss now?

There are daily traffic jams on the 101 when traffic grinds to a near halt. The train has its own right of way, making traffic jams unheard of and slowdowns rare. I would venture to say that the train commuter has a much better on-time record than the freeway commuter because of this. In addition, tens of millions have been spent on retracking the line for the successful baby bullets and upgrading various stations. If you shut down CalTrain, that's money out the window.

Beside the cost of maintenance and repair of 101 and 280, there is also the cost of law enforcement in the form of the CHP. Who pays for the CHP? Before you shut down CalTrain, why not make the 101 and 280 toll roads in an effort to recoup some of the tax dollars that go toward its maintenance, repair and law enforcement?

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Nayeli's facts are all wrong. Regarding the last post:
1) the cost of driving is much higher than the cost of gas (approx double). The IRS standard rate is now $0.51 per mile. Also, your car insurance rates depend on how much you drive so you pay less for insurance if you drive less. I know Caltrain users who have been able to lower the number of cars per household, saving significant amounts of money. Locally Stanford charges $747 per year for an "A" parking permit but will give a free Caltrain pass and pay $282 a year for those who don't buy a parking permit. That is $1029 difference right off the bat.

2) Weather is a minor issue a few days a year and only for those who bike or walk. See next item.

3) Most Caltrain stations have parking lots (for which you must pay) so you can drive to the station if you choose. For those who don't want to drive, walk or bike there are many shuttles that go from Caltrain stations to businesses. The Caltrain web site lists about 50 of them! Like Stanford's Marguerite most of them are free and serve business locations. You don't have to work within walking distance of Caltrain to use it.

4) Harping on the (phony) 18,000 people number is silly. There are many roads in residential areas (especially semi-rural ones like Los Altos Hills & Woodside) that serve far fewer people than this. There are state highways in rural areas that have average daily traffic volumes much less than the 36,000 daily trips of Caltrain. They are maintained with public funds because they serve the public good. The absolute number is not important. The question is whether the money is providing a valuable service for the investment. Unfortunately, Caltrain has a highly visible direct subsidy while auto transport has many funding sources and many hidden subsidies which are easy to overlook. It is very difficult to compare the costs directly, and most people (like Nayeli) get it way wrong. Look at the posts above that point out some of the hidden costs: CHP enforcement, the "free" tow trucks that serve the freeways, the costs of traffic delays, the health care cost of air pollution, etc.

Some people have suggested raising Caltrain fares until they cover all the costs, but I propose the opposite. Subsidize it almost entirely, the way we do with auto transport, and cut the fares to zero or near-zero. Then you would truly see how popular it is. For a realistic example you need look no farther than Stanford. Employees can get a zero-fare Go Pass and 25 percent of them use public transportation. Imagine the savings from the reductions in congestion and pollution if we could do this on a larger scale!

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm

@ Donald:

Which of my facts are "all wrong?"

1. Most of the costs for driving will be there NO MATTER if you use CalTrain or not. Why? Most people who use CalTrain also own a car. You still have to pay insurance...registration...inspection...3-month oil changes...etc... I have had my car for five years. You know how many times that I had to pay for vehicle repairs over that time? Not many...and none that were major. It definitely was less than the $3250 per year that I would have paid by riding CalTrain.

2. You do not have the power to make up everyone else's mind about the affect of the weather on a person's decision to use the train. The CalTrain employees have told me that ridership is much lower on special weather days. BTW, there are typically more than just "a few days a year" that have rain or extreme heat.

3. So, in addition to paying the cost of the train, people also have to pay to park next to the train. This admission hurts your claim that weather is just not a factor...and it also hurts the argument about people not using cars (on roads) or for vehicle upkeep costs just because they chose to use the train. Come to think of it, there are plenty of cars in the CalTrain parking lots.

4. I am not "harping" any more than you are "harping" on those who criticize yet another plea for a transportation subsidy by an entity that can't balance its budget (even after raising costs twice in two years). The "18,000 riders" figure (average of 36,000 per work day in both directions) is provided by CalTrain -- and is the highest that it has ever been! A few years ago, there were thousands fewer riders.

But, you're correct: The exact number is a nonfactor. The point is that a taxpayer subsidy would be enjoyed by about 0.5% of the residents of the Bay Area. Why should we have to fund YOUR trip to work? What if I asked for a subsidy for MY transportation? Donald, would you like to help pay for my car?


I think that we can ALL agree that CalTrain is broken. Is it irreparable? That is the question.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm

@ Joseph E. Davis:

The thing is that we ALREADY pay for those bridges and highways (via taxes, etc...). An extra fee or toll is just icing on Sacramento's bureaucratic cupcakes. You know how politicians love the red tape -- and how most of those fees and tolls go toward paying for something OTHER THAN road repairs.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Every time I read people singing the praises of CalTrain, I keep remembering the people of Springfield singing something quite similar (back when THE SIMPSONS was still quite funny)...

Web Link


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Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm

As I sat at the Starbucks in RWC the other day waiting for some work to be done on my car, I saw 5 SamTrans buses go by on El Camino at around 11am. All 5 were the double long buses. 2 were "Not in Service" and the other 3 had about 15 people on them, in total. This was in a span of about 45 minutes.

I would call that a horrible use of resources, including SamTrans', the taxpayers and energy. If the guy running SamTrans is also in charge of Caltrain, I see a big part of the problem right there.

I'm all for public transportation, but there needs to be a way to have all parties involved to make it work more efficiently and cost effective.

Private transportation companies seem to make it work. Taxi cabs, shuttle services, limousines, etc... Don't expect it to be self sufficient, but also don't think money needs to be thrown away on incompetence and lack of oversight.

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Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Earlier, I asked a question:

"Why not treat this entity like a private enterprise, by, say, increasing fares and reducing routes?"

Just a short time ago, Palo Alto Weekly posted a new article on Caltrain; here's part:

"Caltrain proposes to cut weekday trains from 86 to 48 to run during commute hours only, along with any necessary adjustments to shuttle-bus services. All weekend, night, holiday and special-event service would be eliminated. Up to seven of 10 stations could be closed between San Francisco and San Jose: Bayshore, South San Francisco, San Bruno, Burlingame, Hayward Park, Belmont, San Antonio in Mountain View, Lawrence, Santa Clara and College Park. All service south of Diridon station in San Jose would end. Base fares would rise 25 cents."

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm

San Jose Mercury News Story

Employees cost Caltrain by cashing big raises during tumultuous time

By Mike Rosenberg
Posted: 12/17/2010 07:57:14 PM PST

Web Link

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm

The "18,000 people served by Caltrain" is a phony number, and it did not come from Caltrain. They have no way of knowing how many distinct people use their trains. What they do know, and have published, is that they serve an average of 36,000 trips per weekday. That was turned into the 18,000 people number by some poster here. That can only be true using the ridiculously simple-minded assumption that every train user makes a rount-trip every day. But we know that many people use it only a day or two a week, and there are a significant number of people who make one-way trips to the airport, returning on a different day. We may not know exactly how many distinct people use the trains in a year, but we know that it must be more than the phony 18,000 number.
Nayeli, if you had been listening you would know that I already help to pay for your drive to work (and I don't mind doing so).

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2011 at 7:16 pm

@ Donald:

WE ALL PAY for the use of roads, highways and interstates. WE don't mind doing so...because WE take advantage of them on a daily basis. Most of Bay Area peninsula residents (in fact, 99.5% of us) DO NOT ride CalTrain each week.

BTW (again), the 18,000 number is the one repeated by CalTrain when they say how many INDIVIDUALS use the train each day. 18,000 riders x 2 (to and from work) = 36,000.

This number is quite a bit more than the average from just a few years ago.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 8, 2011 at 9:35 am

Two common misconceptions:

NO Death Spiral
Caltrain finances may be in a death spiral, but the ridership has not gone down despite a reduction in services last year. It actually went up a bit. The issue is to provide enough services to stay functional and stable. There is no community consensus for converting Caltrain into an HSR of sorts every few minutes of the day, bringing more noise and congestion to our neighborhoods.

NOT 40,000 riders
There are approximately 40,000 rides a day. There are 20,000 riders each way. That's a big difference.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 8, 2011 at 9:46 am

One of the presentations at the Friends of
Caltrain meeting was about how wildly successful the bikes on board program has been. It was proposed that some regular passenger cars be replaced with bike cars to accommodate the demand,

Speaking to some regular bike riders who commute on Caltrain, they said they'd be willing to pay a surcharge to bring their bikes on board. This seams like a very reasonable way to increase revenue. A bike takes up an extra "seat" so to speak. Since bikers are apparently in danger of getting bumped because of lack of space, why not have online ticketing for bikers and their bikes so they can be assured of a space?

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

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