Palo Alto slams Caltrain for poor public outreach

City Council committee to ask Caltrain board for more outreach on potential service reductions

Palo Alto officials are calling for Caltrain to put the brakes on possible service cuts until stakeholders and members of the public have a chance to review the latest changes proposed by staff.

Caltrain plans to unveil the latest proposal for service cuts and fare changes at its Thursday morning meeting -- the same meeting at which the agency's board of directors is scheduled to vote on the proposal. The agency is facing a budget deficit of up to $30 million in fiscal year 2012 because of decreased contributions from its three member agencies -- San Mateo County Transit District, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

So far, Caltrain has been considering raising fares, eliminating weekend and night-time service and closing seven stations. The list of stations facing possible closure includes the San Antonio Road station in Mountain View, near the Palo Alto city line.

In recent weeks, however, Caltrain has been negotiating with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its three funding agencies to identify other ways to close the budget gap.

Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain's director of rail transportation, wrote in a brief report that staff has developed a service and fare plan "consistent with the potential level of funding that it anticipates will be implemented July 1, 2011." The report gives no indication, however, of what the proposed service and fare adjustments would be. It notes that the "proposed service reductions are exempt from review" under environmental law because the Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, declared a fiscal emergency at its March 3 meeting.

But members of the Palo Alto council cried foul Monday morning about Caltrain's process for instituting the new fees. Councilman Pat Burt, who represents the city on the six-city Peninsula Cities Consortium, called Caltrain's plan to vote on the changes Thursday a "fundamental process problem." Staff's proposed timeline gives neither the JPB nor the public a chance to properly review the new plan, he argued.

"There's no way on earth that they should be making this decision at the same meeting that the information is presented to the public," Burt said. "Member cities will have no opportunity to respond."

Burt's colleagues on the committee, Larry Klein, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd, shared his frustration and agreed to send Caltrain board members a letter calling for them to slow down and give the public a chance to consider the new proposals. Though Caltrain held four meetings on the previously considered cuts, it has not done any outreach on the new staff proposal, which remains under wraps.

"It's unbelievable to think that they can get away with that," Price said.

Committee Chair Larry Klein said Caltrain's proposal to unveil and adopt the staff recommendations at the same meeting suggests that the Joint Powers Board is expected to basically "rubberstamp" these recommendations. He called the process "unconscionable."

"Obviously, they know what they'll be proposing on Thursday," Klein said. "The fact that it's not being released says that it's something that they want to hide."

Burt called the proposal by Caltrain staff not to publicize the latest plans until Thursday an "outrageous procedure" and said he hopes agency officials will "come to their senses."

"Staff continues to operate in a way that's almost like they hope to circumvent participation of member cities and the public," he said.

Palo Alto plans to send a letter to Caltrain no later than Tuesday asking for the agency to delay its vote on the staff-proposed changes -- whatever those changes might be.

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Like this comment
Posted by ChooChoo
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Palo Alto Council members have an easy way to avoid the decreased services, Pony up the money necessary to avoid cutbacks. Whining and stamping your feet like children only makes their position more laughable. For Klein and other members to whine about the cuts at the last minute is a tribute to their leadership skills (none). It would probably carry more weight if these council committee members were able to balance their own city budget which they have been unable to for the last 10 years. What a pity that there are those who continue to enhance and publish public servants incompetent opinions as though their opinions are valid.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank T
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 4, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Cut it more so that we can sleep at night without the obnoxious horn noise!

Like this comment
Posted by no new roads
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm

We don't need new taxes to support Caltrain. Just cancel all the worthless highway projects and use that money for Caltrain instead. We have way too many highways already.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Whether you like Caltrain or not, a proposal this important to so many people should be available in advance of the meeting at which it will be voted on. Burt et. al. are absolutely right.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 4, 2011 at 8:32 pm

I agree with the issues of proposing and voting at the same meeting, but its time for Caltrain to be a M-F "commute rail", and stop the needless empty trains running in off-hours.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 5, 2011 at 8:19 am

There was a recent article in the Daily Telegraph of London critical of fare increases and all the cuts made to the commuter service through south-east England to the coast.

These cuts and fare increases to the local commuter line have been made to force commuters onto the new High Speed train between London and the Channel Tunnel. The same cuts and fare increases are being similarly copied by Caltrains!!!

Ironically, riders of the new high speed train service in England are finding that it actually takes longer to ride the new HSR line to get to their destination in London than it did to ride the fast trains on the old train tracks. Meanwhile their fares have gone way up and they are being greatly inconvenienced.

All this is coming to light because the Prime Minister wants to build another HSR line where existing train service exists between London and Birmingham; and the Brits and pushing back and saying "No".

Anyway the arguments are eerily similar to CalTrains.

Like this comment
Posted by Caltrainrider
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 5, 2011 at 2:10 pm

The loudest trains at night are the freight trains which will run regardless of Caltrain's schedule. The passenger trains at night are far less empty than many of the daytime trains.
Caltrain is dreaming if they think they will succeed running commute hour trains only. Caltrain passengers commute knowing that if they get stuck at work they can take a later train. Without that flexibility, many (including myself) will go back to their cars.

Like this comment
Posted by tjw
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

I commuted by car for years, and I have all the usual hang-ups about the "freedom" of cars, but after commuting by Caltrain for the past 5 months, now it feels like the train frees me from the stress and needless delays of traffic. I never knew how stressful rush hour driving was until I got away from it. Now there are times when I have to drive to work, and I find myself trapped, at the mercy of traffic and other people's driving skills, which isn't freedom at all. I still love my car but it seems such a waste to wear it down driving to and from work every day. After adjusting to a walk-bike-train lifestyle I don't want to go back!

Please don't make me drive to work!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Robert McDiarmid
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 7, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Unless the Palo Alto City Council has ways to help fund Caltrain - instead of only bitching and complaining - - they had best drop this. Palo Alto is already the laughing stock of the region over it's obsession with high speed rail. But try and limit services and they start crying wolf. These emperors are wearing no clothes.

It's time that Caltrain got a dedicated tax-based funding source rather than having to settle for handouts from San Mateo County Transit District, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Palo Alto could show clear leadership on the issue by being the first municipality to put their money where their MOUTH is.

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