Caltrain cobbles together financial survival plan

Negotiates for VTA funds

If negotiations with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) go well, Caltrain might get an infusion of $4.9 million over two years to prop up its operating budget.

Right now, the public-transit program faces a projected $30 million shortfall in its operating budget, and could run out of cash by 2015, according to the agency.

If it doesn't find a solution, Caltrain may cut the number of weekly trains from 86 to 48, eliminate weekend trains and close up to seven stations.

But the VTA funds could ease the severity of those cuts.

"There will have to be some service reductions," San Mateo County Transit District CEO Mike Scanlon told the board of directors on March 24, as quoted in an agency press release. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we can put together the puzzle and while there will be some sacrifices and some cuts, it won't be nearly as severe as we had originally planned."

The money would come as repayment of funds extended to VTA by SamTrans in 1991 to buy right-of-way for Caltrain.

"We agreed they wouldn't be obligated to pay it back, but would make their best effort to do so," explained Mark Simon, SamTrans executive officer for public affairs. The agency anticipated repayment in 2007, after voters passed a proposition allowing gas taxes to be allocated to transit.

"That was the first time around of $4 gas, so that fund got very large," he said. "But instead of allocating the funds to transit, the state took them. So we never quite got the money."

While the repayment could help Caltrain, it doesn't do much for its parent agency, which appears to be prioritizing buses over trains. "Saying 'you can have the money, but have to use it for Caltrain, doesn't help SamTrans," Simon said. "It all affects how much service we can provide. Either we find another source of money, or the cuts get worse."

According to the board, the funding would provide only two years' of relief, leaving the directors searching for ways to propose a permanent funding source to voters for approval in 2012. Currently Caltrain receives most of its money through contributions from San Francisco, the Santa Clara VTA and SamTrans.

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Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 28, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Here's a crazy idea for funding: charge market rate fares! Maybe the incentive to drive down costs and increase efficiencies will emerge.

No way your going to get more tax money to fund the lumbering dinosaurs rumbling up and down the valley floor.

The Silicon Valley has this for its transportation? Geez!

Like this comment
Posted by market rate
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Charge market rate tolls for Highway 101, too. Why do tax payers have to subsidize that monstrosity? Most of the money to pay for highway construction and highway maintenance comes out of the general fund, not automobile taxes or gasoline taxes.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm

That's because the state legislature steals the money from the gas taxes on an annual basis.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Gas taxes were never intended to be used solely for highways. Dedicating funding streams to specific uses is one of the reasons our state budget is in such trouble now. 80% - 85% of the budget is allocated by formula and the legislators have no freedom to change that. They are left trying to balance the budget by making drastic cuts to the small part of the pie that is within their control.

Caltrain gets 40% of its revenue from it users, which is more than any local highway does. The funding problems are a domino effect of troubles at SamTrans, which has screwed Caltrain to save its own neck. The article above, although not very well-written, does state obliquely that the real solution for Caltrain under the current funding scenario is to help SamTrans.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2011 at 10:20 pm

> Why do tax payers have to subsidize that monstrosity?

Are you for real? Highway 101 and Highway 280 carry the bulk of the traffic N/S on the peninsula. Everything that we eat, the clothes that we wear, and access to most of the jobs that keep people living the good life are transported on these two highways.

Caltrain barely cares 18,000 individuals a day (on the weekdays), and less than half that number of the weekend. If Caltrain were to disappear tomorrow, it would not be missed.

> which is more than any local highway does.

Are you for real? The financial model, and the use model, are entirely different. Without our highways, the who area would go "poof" overnight.

America's highways carry 20x the headcount of its rail system. What part of that don't you understand?

Like this comment
Posted by market rates for all, or for none
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 29, 2011 at 10:41 am

If everyone uses 101/280, then charging market rates shouldn't hit them so hard should it? sounds like we could remove all taxpayer road subsidies and divide the costs of the roads among those who use them - and that includes vehicles which deliver goods.

Don't tell me we need to cut funding for rails but keep funding for roads, because then you're just using free-market arguments to get yourself a government hand-out. If you really believe in this free market stuff, then you should be willing to take your own medicine.

Or we can recognize that a robust transportation system - including commuter trains - is an essential public service and worth financing.

Like this comment
Posted by Andrew
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 29, 2011 at 10:44 am

Want to do something fun? Change the date to 2020 and do a search and replace on Caltrain for High Speed Rail. What an "environmental way to blow $40B and stick the taxpayers for the over-runs.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

If Caltrain shut down - it would be missed - both on the highways where the bulk of Caltrain rides would now be driving at rush hour but also on Palo Alto city streets as thousands of commuters who get on or off at Palo Alto would drive.

If you think it should close - take a morning or afternoon - during rush hour and go to the Palo Alto station (there's a nice Cafe there now) enjoy a Latte and watch the crowds getting on and off the trains. If there is no train these folks are going to drive - on our local streets - all at the same time.

Bart has a sales tax dedicated to it, highways get gas tax $$ but also bonds and general funds (gas taxes being only about 40% of the need).

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Yes, highways carry more people than the train, and they also cost a lot more. And our highway funding system is broken even worse than the Caltrain funding system, but the effects are being hidden for the moment. At the state, county and city level preventive maintenance is being deferred, causing roads to deteriorate to the point where they will need to be completely repaved later at a much higher cost. When that bill comes due you will really her some squealing.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Same old tired arguments. Taxpayers have to pay for the train riders because they'll crowd 101/280.

Okay I'll pay market rates, train riders pay market rates and maybe it will put some sanity back into the system.

One regional public transit system. Get rid of the high speed rail boondoggle. Change the "train" into a people mover system.

Of course that won't happen because the voters are arguing about 101/280 vs caltrain subsidies or the tired argument of how many people will be on the road. The overpaid transit officials then can laugh all the way to the bank.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Hypothetically, if 101 and 280 were changed into toll roads to cover the costs, guess what, the traffic on Middlefield and El Camino as well as most other neighborhood streets, would be horrendous.

One of the design features of highways is to take traffic from local roads to enable local traffic to move efficiently.

One of the beauties of Caltrain is that it takes traffic from all local roads and also highways to enable local traffic and highway traffic to move efficiently.

We all pay for our highways and we should all be paying for our Caltrain system because we are all benefitting from both. Without Caltrain, like doing without a highway, every local street would feel the extra traffic. I would rather pay for regional transit in my gas tax than in extra traffic through my town.

Like this comment
Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Mar 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

If Caltrain goes away, there could be four more lanes of local roads, or bike lanes. Local traffic will be greatly improved. So, saying Caltrain benefits local traffic is just not ture.
For those not willing to pay for the high ways, try not to use them for a month, they tell us what do you think. Most people never used Caltrain, living without it won't be any problem at all.

Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2011 at 12:23 am

My family doesn't typically use either 101 or 280 for more than a month at a time. We usually bike or take the train, although we occasionally use the car to pick up groceries around town. I can honestly say that if the commute service on Caltrain were to be cut my wife would probably quit her job in the city.

As for tolling 101 or 280 ... I thought they were thinking of tolling one or two lanes? That would probably ease some of the congestion problems and might even get more people to ride the train.

Like this comment
Posted by Carlito Waysman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 30, 2011 at 11:53 am

Caltrain= a bottomless pit of taxpayers money that benefits only a handful of freeloaders.

Eliminate Caltrain and its prehistoric technology, invest that money for building more highways, High Speed Train and an efficient interconnected Bay Area transportation System.

Never in my long life have ridden CALTRAIN. The true spirit of California is the freedom that the car provides you.

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

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