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Caltrain's hopes ride on new rail agreement

Original post made on Mar 22, 2012

Caltrain long-deferred dream of electrified tracks could finally become reality under a new proposal between the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and several Bay Area transportation groups.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, March 22, 2012, 4:31 PM

Comments (13)

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Posted by transportation money
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Bay Area politicians spend billions of dollars on highway projects without a second thought. Most of this money comes from sales taxes and property taxes; only a small portion comes from auto taxes.

Why is funding public transit so difficult? Why can't public transit just get a fixed percentage of the general transportation budget? Public transit is just as important as highways; even more important in this era of soaring gasoline prices.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 22, 2012 at 6:11 pm

@transportation money: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency budget in 2011 was $363 million. That works out to $200 for each person in Santa Clara County - every man, woman, child & baby. Of that $363 million, only $38 million was from fares. Most of the rest are from sales tax. The average weekday ridership for light rail is 31,000, and the average bus weekday ridership is 102,000. So the VTA spends about $2,700 per year per rider.

Around 93% of the population of Santa Clara is subsidizing 7% of the population.

The percent of population subsidizing the Caltrain ridership is even high, because Caltrain ridership is lower, and the population across the 3 counties (San Francisco, San Mateo & Santa Clara) is bigger.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Even if true, "Mr. transportation money," how much money is too much? Is there no upper limit to costs for improved transit? We are approaching the gold-plated, diamond studded version of transit with high-speed rail. When talking about a project that will cost in the neighborhood of $200 billion, a "second thought" is highly appropriate, don't you think? After all, it's your money.

We need to distinguish between a regional commuter rail, like Caltrain, and high-speed inter-city rail, like the project in front of us. Would you justify a $200 billion fancy luxury train for the affluent in order to electrify the regional commuter rail? That's a very bad business decision.

Public funding has become very difficult indeed, as you point out. There's a reason. It's called "waste, fraud and abuse" by the government that is responsible for such waste, fraud and abuse. There are no projects any longer that don't see their original budget estimates triple and quadruple. And they invariably predict the project will be used by zillions of us, until it is actually built, and then, we see hardly any use. Good example of this: The Airport Connector which more than doubled in cost and carries merely a fraction of what was promised.

Public transit is, by and large, a good thing. But, we the public being screwed by our government is not a good thing. Don't you agree? Please note that there are no safeguards, no accountability, no oversight for Caltrain. And HSR is in the hands of the Legislature, which is Democratic and wants the train at any cost.

And that's a terrible thing to do to the citizens of California.

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Posted by Mila
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I believe that like and grand political announcement that sounds almost too good to be true, the devil is in the details. One aspect of electrifying the Caltrain corridor that seems to be consistently ignored is the need for grade separations at every street/rail crossing.

Unless every rail/street crossing along the Caltrain corridor is fully separated (perhaps some crossings simply closed permanently) as a part of this plan, it should be rejected outright. I believe the arrogant HSR Authority has previously declared that if cities along the rail line want separated crossings, then they should pay for it themselves. To the best of my knowledge, none of our local politicians has addressed this important aspect of electrifying Caltrain. If they have, or would like to, now would be a good time to chime in (hint to: Hill, Simitian, Gordon, Eshoo, Boxer, Feinstein, etc.). Silence from these politicians can be inferred to mean more interest in the dollars, than the safety of affected communities and constituents.

Adding more, and faster trains to the Caltrain corridor, regardless of whether they are HSR or Caltrain trains, without the complete separation of rail and vehicle and pedestrian traffic should not be tolerated. The safety issues of not separating crossings are obvious, and the deleterious affects of increased traffic congestion and related noise at un-separated crossings can not be ignored.

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Posted by Allan
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I believe that spending HSR bond dollars for this is probably against the law. Not that anyone in Sacramento cares much about that.

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Posted by Thomas Paine IV
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 23, 2012 at 8:55 am

Someone should remind Gordon about the facts. CalTrain does not have and will never have "hundreds of thousands" of riders. It actually carries around 20,000 people each day who account for 40,000 daily trips. Gordon must have used his High Speed Rail calculator which automatically increases every ridership number by a factor of 20X. Clearly that calculator was a gift from the labor unions who provide 80% plus of his campaign fund.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

@common sense: if you believe the numbers, Caltrain is one of the most efficiently operated transit agencies in the entire Bay Area. It recovers close to 50 cents on each operating dollar through fare revenue, a percentage that is 2x better than MUNI, 3x better than SamTrans and 4x better than VTA. Caltrain is nearly as efficient as BART on this metric.

And all of those beat the cost-recovery ratio of freeways by a long shot... Only about 200k people use highway 101 on any given day, but 300 million of us subsidize it. Where's your outrage?

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 23, 2012 at 12:46 pm

@anonymous - here are the numbers for Caltrain: $153 million to operate for 20,000 riders, or $7,650 per rider - it's 2.8 times more costly per rider than VTA ($2,700 per rider). Fare recovery is $52.5 million.

Total population for the 3 county Cal Train system is 3.3 million people, so 99.4% of the people are subsidizing .6% of the people who ride Caltrain

Between VTA + SamTran + Caltrain, public transportation spending just for operations is roughly $684 million/year. There are other agencies not included: SF Muni, Dumbarton express, Bart lines in SF, to SFO, to SJ.

Your estimate of the number of people who use Highway 101 is grossly underestimated.

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Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Excellent points about the cost, but the most telling comment concerns grade separation.

By helping Caltrain to electrify (which may be illegal since it wasn't in the bond issue language), HSR hopes to get its "nose under the tent" and con us into supporting it.

The HSR Authority is trying every trick to justify more money from taxpayers - you and me. No private investors have put money into the system (part of bond language financing estimates) because they can't see a Return On Investment. This means the HSR line won't make a profit which means taxpayers will cover much of the operating cost. This is like HSR in other countries where the lines are subsidized.

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm

The Caltrain ridership numbers are being confused with the number of customers. Although 20,000 people use it each day, not all the users use it every day. That means that today's 20,000 people are not the same as tomorrow's 20,000 people. If most people use it twice a week, then the user base is 2.5x the daily ridership.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2012 at 10:18 am

@Mila: electrification most assuredly does NOT require grade separations. I know the Daily Post repeats this over and over, but that doesn't make it right.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm

> then the user base is 2.5x the daily ridership.

There are unique people who use the train, and their is ridership (number of one-way trips provided to users). Caltrain publishes "ridership" which is straightforward to determine. "Unique people" is a little harder to determine, although a certain amount of identity tracking is possible when people uses multiple trip passes.

Assuming that the average person makes two trips a day, then it's not hard to divide the daily ridership by two, to determine the number of unique people using the train. The ridership on the weekends is different from that during the week, so these numbers would likely have to be added, but this requires that we create a new variable, such as unique-person-trips. Without actually tracking each person by some sort of tracking number (such as an RFID pass), the exact number of unique people can not be precisely known--however it will always be somewhere near the ridership/2.

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Posted by Mila
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 25, 2012 at 4:53 pm

@ Anonymous; your are right, electrification of Caltrain does not require grade separations, and I've never said that. I don't think anyone has. I'm saying that if significant work "improving" the Caltrain corridor to permit increased train traffic doesn't include grade separations at every crossing, then it's a bad deal for the Peninsula. The safety, traffic (auto and pedestrian), and noise problems associated with increased rail traffic are, to the best of my knowledge, undisputed.

What exactly are you trying to say?

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