Solving Caltrain's short-term crisis got a kick-start Thursday night (March 3) from Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) after its board of directors voted to approve a $7.2 million reimbursement payment to Caltrain.
If other county transit partners agree to certain conditions, the money could loosen up other proportional subsidies from VTA and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency to narrow Caltrain's projected $30 million 2012 operating deficit to $14 million. VTA General Manager Michael Burns has said that reduction could be enough to keep most services.
The board's vote means that Burns now has the green light to discuss and negotiate five options for saving Caltrain service in the short and mid term. Five resolutions passed by an 11-to-0 vote Thursday include:
* To recommend transfer of $5.5 million from the Dumbarton Rail project on an emergency basis to Caltrain.
* Transferring funds from Caltrain electrification to operations.
* Reimbursing SamTrans the $7.2 million for the 1991 Caltrain right-of-way purchase from Southern Pacific Transportation Company.
* Asking Caltrain to conduct an analysis of its property, stations and parking lots for possible sale.
* To recommend giving Caltrain first call on regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission discretionary funding that could result in decreased regional funding for VTA and the other transit agencies.
Burns will have the ability to approve the funding options either separately or as a whole, VTA spokeswoman Jennie Hwang Loft said.
The three counties subsidize nearly 40 percent of Caltrain's funding, but financial woes at SamTrans caused that agency to slash $10 million from a $14.7 million subsidy to Caltrain for fiscal year 2012.
The other two agencies said that under their tri-county agreement they would slash their subsidies proportionately. VTA's contribution would drop from $14.1 million to $4.6 million and San Francisco would drop from $6.2 million to $2 million, according to a Caltrain report.
Caltrain's funding has been in crisis for the past few years -- despite having one of the highest ticket sales of any transit agency in the region -- due to lack of a dedicated funding source, according to rail officials.
As state funding and tax revenues to the three county transit agencies have evaporated, their proportional contributions to Caltrain have also diminished.
The problem was exacerbated by state funding cuts and an $82 million advance SamTrans supplied toward purchasing the Caltrain right-of-way in 1991, SamTrans officials said at a February Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board meeting.
In 2008, VTA and San Francisco agreed, along with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, to use "spillover" funds to repay SamTrans its proportional shares, but the funds have since been eliminated by the state, according to a VTA memo.
Proposition 116, the Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act of 1990, provided another $120 million for the right-of-way purchase, which included the real property, stations, signals and trains.
The Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, declared a fiscal emergency Thursday (March 3). Deep cuts to service could take place by July 2. All service south of San Jose's Diridon Station would end, cutting off Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill and south San Jose.
All weekend, special event, holiday, night and daytime service, except for peak commuter hours, would end. Up to seven stations between San Jose and San Francisco would close, Caltrain officials have warned.
The VTA board approved the potential release of the $7.2 million if SamTrans agrees to use the full amount to increase its share of the Caltrain operating budget and if it releases its ownership in tenancy of the right-of-way to Caltrain. San Francisco and VTA would then pay their proportional level of Caltrain funding, reducing the projected deficit to $14 million.
SamTrans officials have not said if they will agree to the proposals. Burns has been meeting weekly with the other transit-agency general managers and the transportation commission in search of a solution to the crisis, Loft said.
The Joint Powers Board will meet April 7 at 10 a.m. at SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos to vote on service cuts. If a solution is not found to the crisis, those cuts could begin in the new fiscal year on July 2.