Caltrain to keep all trains running — for now | April 22, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 22, 2011

Caltrain to keep all trains running — for now

Agency to retain the current service level in 2012 but warns of deep budget troubles ahead

by Gennady Sheyner

Caltrain will keep all of its 86 weekday trains running in the next fiscal year, though riders will have to shell out a little extra for tickets and parking, the agency's board of directors decided Thursday morning.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees the cash-strapped transit agency, voted 5-3 Thursday morning to adopt a budget plan that depends largely on one-time revenues to balance the books in fiscal year 2012. The approved plan also assumes the agency will close its projected $3.5 million budget deficit through a contribution from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a regional planning agency.

Though the final details of the deal are still being negotiated, the money would likely be transferred from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's allocation for Caltrain's capital budget to its annual operating budget, Caltrain staff said Thursday. Caltrain CEO Michael Scanlon called the deal a "one-year patch" and said the money could come from a vehicle-replacement budget, which is already underfunded.

"It's a complicated deal," Scanlon told the board. "It's close to done. There's been good, positive spirit that has characterized the talks between the partners and the MTC."

Under the plan, train fares would go up by 25 cents, while the daily parking costs would rise from $3 to $4 starting July 1. The cost of the monthly parking pass would go up from $30 to $40.

Members of the public and the board majority hailed the plan as a victory, however temporary, to the agency's ongoing budget crisis. Caltrain staff had previously proposed reducing service to 76, or possibly even 48, trains, suspending weekend service at some stations (including California Avenue in Palo Alto) and closing other stations altogether. These proposals drew heated opposition from the public, with riders, business owners and city officials packing into recent public hearings to urge the agency to keep its service levels intact.

The board agreed to adopt the staff proposal to keep all 86 trains running and to keep stations open and weekend service intact. But members also warned that most of the fixes in the proposal are only good for the next fiscal year and that the agency still faces the monumental task of getting permanent, dedicated funding.

This is the third year that the Caltrain board has declared a fiscal emergency.

"The reality is that we have to be in this together during these two years to come up with a solution because we could be back here with something far more serious than what we're talking about now," said Director Adrienne Tissier, who made the motion to accept the new budget plan.

Director Liz Kniss said she was "amazed" that the agency was able to come up with a plan this quickly and called the proposal "very satisfying." Director Ken Yeager agreed, though he acknowledged that the long-term problem is far from solved.

"I think we all sensed the message that this is a service that we'd like to maintain as much as we could," Yeager said. "Even though we got the little train up the hill this time, there's a lot of clouds."

Board Vice Chair Omar Ahmad, who along with Chair Sean Elsbernd and Director Jose Cisneros opposed the resolution, called the proposal a "one-time spending plan" that is "not a solution" to the agency's financial struggles. He proposed an amendment that, barring a new funding source, would have established a 48-weekday-train model as the "sustainable" service model for the agency. His amendment failed, with only Elsbernd and Cisneros supporting it.

"I absolutely guarantee with the budget we're about to adopt, we'll be here in January or February declaring a fiscal emergency," Elsbernd said. "The underbelly of this system is completely corroded."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Did anyone NOT see this happening? CalTrain bluffed...and the people called that bluff.

Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

It is more like a teenager who cried "HELP" and the parents (MTC) agreed to help by taking money from the college fund (capital budget) to pay for current expenses. Hardly a bluff when MTC, Muni, VTA and SamTrans have control over Caltrain's budgets.

Posted by Kevin, a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Robbie sez: "Hardly a bluff when MTC, Muni, VTA and SamTrans have control over Caltrain's budgets."

Right. Which is why Caltrain needs to kick all of the above to the curb and go it alone -- with its own funding source.

Instead, it looks like the JPB has kicked the can down the tracks another year. Elsbernd's closing quote above is spot on.

Posted by Robbie, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Right. This didn't solve the long-term problem but it brought them some breathing room and time to do so.

Posted by Larry Cohn, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Here is a fun fact: looking at a Southern Pacific timetable from 1968, S.P. ran just 44 trains per day, almost half of today's 86, and still lost money (which is how CalTrans got involved in 1980). What is missing is the total number of riders per day. What has changed are commute patterns. There were likely not as many passengers commuting north to south in the morning and south to north in the evening ("reverse commuting" as it was called then). There was also no commute service to Gilroy and there were no baby bullets. There were also two long-distance trains, the Lark (discontinued in 1968) and the (Coast) Daylight which now passes through Oakland.

One wonders whether fewer but longer commute trains would help CalTrain's current money woes.

Posted by Flash, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 22, 2011 at 8:55 am

Normally I’d agree about the dangers of confusing capital with income, but given how much money CalTrain has wasted in making its tracks _less_ convenient, this may for once be a good idea.

Posted by Frank, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

> Larry Cohn wrote
>Here is a fun fact: looking at a Southern Pacific timetable from 1968, S.P. ran just 44 trains >per day, almost half of today's 86, and still lost money

Here's another 'fun fact' - passenger rail service has almost always lost money since the beginning. Railroads were given huge amounts of land for free or greatly reduced prices on condition that they run passenger rail service. They agreed (including SP) in order to build the rail road and a freight business. In the 1960 the US government let most of the rail roads out of this deal and formed Amtrak.

Most every commute option looses money. Freeways? They're only free to drive on, but tax payers pay to build them. The only example I can think of that actually did pay for itself was the Golden Gate bridge - which paid off it's bonds in the '60's but then went and bought a fleet of boats and buses (this had more to do with a reason to keep the GG Bridge District intact - but that's a whole other story). There are probably others but in general all transit options loose money.

Posted by coooper, a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2011 at 11:28 am

With three fiscal emergencies and a fourth one looming, it's time for new leadership. Mike Scanlon has a natural conflict of interest as the head of funding agency Samtrans, and, having put the public through this convulsion, should gracefully leave or be pushed out. The two Chairmen mentioned in the story, rightly or wrongly, have lost leadership control of the board, and so should resign those positions too.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I meant that CalTrain was bluffing by trying to push other "solutions" upon us when we all knew all along that they would find the temporary money to solve this most recent crisis.

Sometimes, I just wish that they would scrap CalTrain and replace it with an extended Muni system. A trip to San Francisco via public transportation should cost LESS than actually driving yourself.

Right now, a single CalTrain ticket costs 3x the price of driving your own vehicle to San Francisco ($12 vs. $4 for the gas). The only time that it is cost effective to take CalTrain is when you are traveling alone and have to pay top dollar for parking somewhere (but, then again, CalTrain charges you for parking too).

A family of four taking CalTrain to a Giants' game must pay $48 for CalTrain tickets. It costs $4 in gas to drive to the same location...but another $27.50 to park at the stadium. Thus, it is only about $16.50 more expensive to take CalTrain to a Giants' game.

I suppose that the only viable alternative is for CalTrain to raise their prices (again) so that the ones primarily paying for CalTrain are the few who actually use the service on a consistent basis. The entire distance from Gilroy to San Fran and back is traveled by an average of 16,000 unique riders per day (32,000 return trips). Why should the other 99.5% of us pay out of our own pockets for the service enjoyed by so very few?

Regardless, the point is that the CalTrain system is broken. I suppose that they will have continuous fiscal emergencies year after year until their fiscal model is either scrapped or revised.

Posted by HUTCH 7.62, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I only wish they ran trains from SF and San Jose later into the night on Friday and sat.. So coming home from a night out on the town would be easier

Posted by coooper, a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I should point out that Chair Sean Elsbernd is also a member of the Golden Gate District that just voted to jack up bridge tolls yet again. That agency, too, is running a huge deficit (despite a flood of cars paying $6). Is this the kind of representation we want?

Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Nayeli, your numbers are all wrong. It has been pointed out to you before that the cost of driving is more than the cost of gas, but you don't seem to have learned that. The IRS standard mileage rate is $0.51 per mile. Also, the cost for a 2-zone Caltrain ticket from Palo Alto to SF is $4.50 (not $12) compared to the driving cost of approx $17.85 (35 miles at $0.51 per mile). For a family with 2 adults and 2 youth the cost of Caltrain would be $27 round trip (youth under 18 travel for half price) while the driving cost would be 2*$17.85 + parking.

Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Sorry, SF is 3 zones so the number above are $6.50 for a solo one-way trip and $39 for the family. Still cheaper than driving.

Posted by narnia, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

The function of trains is to provide on schedule, safer (than cars and buses), jam free, pollution abating, transportation to the public that needs it . When I fly, which is about every 6 weeks, I take the train to either airport (and then bart or the free bus). I know that a train schedule is more reliable than the taking the freeway (and paying for parking or the cost of too trips if I am dropped) and get stuck in traffic (accidents, volume, construction, etc). Just like free schooling is not a money maker trains benefit the public in added productivity (unless you drive while using your computer, or reading....),leg room (fewer clots), pollution abatement and directly the public who either doesn't drive or can't saving resources in so many other ways, too numerous to mention.

Nayeli is either being silly or disingenuous in the comparison between driving and taking the train (and not just because he is making sums using a standard family of 4, which is not the norm in this area). Does he include the price of the car (folded into tear and wear), the insurance, repairs, state fees, road construction and maintenance (more expensive than train lines and stations),cost of parking structures or land,the very high cost of accidents (including the subsidized emergency care), cost of productivity, etc? No, he doesn't. He just presents (and incorrectly) the direct disbursement at the point of service. That's no way to calculate REAL costs. Get back to the board Nayelli, and show the real costs. Then I may be able to believe you.

Posted by Dr. D. Rail, a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2011 at 4:49 pm

pass the full deficit to the riders who use it. And, don't be fooled that caltrain is safer (although it is for riders) - find another 77 mile streatch of roadway, waterway, railway, where as many people have died as have on caltrain tracks. Trips to watch Giant's games with the general population footing much of the transportation bill? Most people don't like ball parks subsidized by the general public. Please don't even comment on highway subsidization - that should be fixed too. Narnia - you really need to stop making negative comments about others - it's incredibly immature!

Posted by Kevin, a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Thanks, Robbie, for the cost-of-driving numbers. I don't know why, but when looking at the cost of driving, folks seem to look no further than the price of gas. Well, there's also registration, insurance, parking, maintenance (scheduled and otherwise), depreciation, parking ... it adds up. Those two tons of heavy machinery you've got out there in the driveway/garage/carport are costing you a hefty chunk of change.

Nayeli: Extended Muni won't work down the Peninsula. Wrong vehicle for the application. Would be something like trading in your car and trying to make the Palo Alto-San Francisco drive in a golf cart. Different railcars are built for different functions. Muni Metro is meant for intracity urban trips, whereas Caltrain is meant for longer intercity hauls. A Muni Metro car on the Peninsula would be as out of place as a Caltrain-style train on the N-Judah.

And Dr. D. Rail, don't presume to tell us what we can talk about and what we can't. If I want to talk about highway subsidies -- and those exist as surely as the Giants' 2010 World Series trophy -- I'll do it. And yes, the roads leading to China Basin ARE subsidized. However people get to the ballyard, be it on foot, Muni, BART, Caltrain, ferry ... public money paid for the road, the rails, the sidewalk. About the only people who didn't take advantage of public infrastructure to get to the game are those in the kayaks at McCovey Cove. Unless they launched said kayaks from a publicly owned boat ramp.

Posted by narnia, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 22, 2011 at 6:25 pm

If people commit suicide surely that is not an accident. Presumably putting yourself at the mercy of gravity when you jump from a bridge should also be counted as a motive to abolish bridges. Train accidents are very low count, but not so automobiles. Why not make highway users pay fully for their choices? Those carless people who live in New york or San francisco have to pay part of Bay area roads? it would be as good an argument as saying that only users of trains should solely pay for them. Ours is a society and a country of shared resources and that means that I pay for your children to go to school even though I have fewer than you. Our societal structure is one of are intertwined needs and resources. .
Those whose selective numbers benefit their fallacies lack credibility for their arguments. There is nothing wrong or negative with pointing that out.

Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 22, 2011 at 6:58 pm

These same arguments have been made over and over again in this forum. It is nearly impossible to calculate all the true inputs and outputs. The fact is that our transport system is NOT "pay as you go", never has been and probably never will be. If paying more than your share of use is considered subsidizing, then urban dwellers subsidize highways for rural citizens, bicyclists subsidize freeways, we all subsidize transit, ports and air travel, California subsidizes poorer states, etc. Accept this as the American way of providing valuable benefits to society and look beyond your own immediate self-interest.

Posted by Dr. D. Rail, a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Everyone's tax dollars do pay for roads, sidewalks - most everyone benefits from them for other reasons in addition to entertainment. Only people going to SF or the ballpark benefit from caltrain. I don't see too many "rural" ballparks that are subsidized. Should we start subsidizing the game ticket cost for you as well? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by travel modes, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I think it's reasonable. People on the train can at least be productive with computer, or enjoy reading, or other activity since they Are NOT Driving!!

Posted by Kevin, a resident of another community
on Apr 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm

"Only people going to SF or the ballpark benefit from caltrain."

This will come as news to those who use the train to commute to Silicon Valley. Not too many commuter-rail services have a two-way rush hour (peak traffic going both directions). Caltrain is one of those. The days of Peninsula commutes being largely burbs-to-SF-and-back are long gone.

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