Despite Caltrain's dire predicament, the passenger rail service is actually one of the best performing of the Bay Area's transit options. According to a May 2010 Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) report, 47.4 percent of Caltrain's 2009 fiscal-year revenue came from ticket sales.
By comparison, San Mateo County's SamTrans bus service took in only 17.5 percent of its revenues from fares and Santa Clara's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) netted 14.2 percent. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was the only transportation agency to outperform Caltrain, with 62.3 percent.
Caltrain also performed comparably to major U.S. commuter lines, according to the National Transportation Database. Its operating expenses ($12.62 per vehicle-revenue mile) were below those of major rail services in Virginia, Florida and Los Angeles, and its administrative costs, at 5.9 percent, were less than half of the other three.
But unlike many other rail lines, Caltrain does not have a dedicated subsidy. In 1991, three Peninsula counties -- San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco -- took over Caltrain after state transportation agency Caltrans decided it would no longer support a regional rail service. Caltrain has received 43 percent of its total revenues in subsidies from the three counties' transit agencies -- SamTrans, VTA and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) -- in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years.
In 2011, it's budgeted to receive just 34 percent from those sources. Declines in state revenues, sales taxes and other funds that support bus and light-rail services have prompted SamTrans to lessen its contribution to Caltrain, from $14.7 million in fiscal year 2011 to $4.8 million for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1. The other two agencies by agreement would automatically reduce their subsidies to match SamTrans' rate -- from $14.1 million in 2011 to $4.6 million for 2012 for VTA and from $6.2 million to about $2 million for the MTA, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) report.
Last week, however, the VTA board discussed paying more to Caltrain if it could form an agreement with the other two agencies to fund more of their shares, Margaret Abe-Koba, VTA board chairwoman, said.
VTA does have the funds to pay its entire contribution, she said.
Another option is for the VTA to pay the $7.1 million it owes SamTrans for the right-of-way, with the proviso that the funds would all go to Caltrain, she said.
VTA is also looking at possibly paying its entire share -- up to $16 million -- in exchange for buying back service for Santa Clara County that Caltrain plans to cut, she said. The board will have further discussions on March 3.
That same day, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board is scheduled to meet to consider service cuts and could vote to declare a fiscal emergency.
The broader question of funding, however, is both a historical and economic issue, according to Jessica Zenk, director of transportation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
"It's not our history (to consider subsidizing rail). Our transportation has been built around the car. It absolutely dictated our land uses and has made transit so much harder to retrofit compared to the type of grid of New York. It's absolutely a different animal," Zenk said.
"We think of transit operations as subsidized because fares don't cover them, but our roads are 100 percent subsidized with minor exceptions for things like bridges that have tolls. We never set up the system well to sustain itself," she said.