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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Transit Experts: Caltrain's Future Grim

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 7:30 AM

Going, going, gone?
  • Going, going, gone?
On April Fools' Day, the CEO of Caltrain made an announcement we wish was just a joke: The agency is beyond broke, and will move to cut half its service. And that's only if it's lucky enough to survive at all.

That was the bad news. Here's the worse news: According to transit experts SF Weekly spoke with, Caltrain has no fat left to eliminate -- and there are no small cuts left, only big ones.

Facing budget shortfalls a decade ago, Caltrains developed the "baby bullets" -- which saved money by stopping only at select stations. "They got rid of all the inefficiencies in the system then," said transit planner Michael Kiesling, a member of Caltrain's Citizens Advisory Commitee from 2000 to 2009. "Now it can't be made more efficient. So they'll just have to start pulling two trains out of the schedule each time."

Kiesling points out that every train crew can make two round trips a day. So when you're getting rid of service, you're essentially removing a pair of trains from the schedule. And there's no in-between. "It's not like Muni, where you can have the bus come every 13 minutes instead of every 10," he continues. "With Caltrain, you have to start pulling stuff out in big chunks."

During the latest round of cutbacks, Caltrain stretched its schedule so

that trains would only run once an hour. Now it will simply eliminate

trains altogether; the service will be limited to weekday commute


How did this happen? Well, it turned out Caltrain was set up like a house of cards, and state cuts triggered massive local cuts. That's because Caltrain has no dedicated funding. There's no guaranteed money coming via sales tax or housing taxes -- like BART has -- or general fund and parking money -- like Muni has. Caltrain's funding comes via the whims of politicians. 

First off, $10 million a year in funding to Caltrain was out-and-out reneged on by the state in each of the last three years. Then, in a trickle-down effect, the state's cuts to SamTrans, VTA, and Muni resulted in a projected 70 percent reduction in the $39.4 million those regional transit agencies pay to Caltrain each year. All told, Caltrain now has to cut some $30 million from a $97 million budget.

(Incidentally, if you're wondering why San Mateo, Santa Clara,and San Francisco County's transit agencies subsidize Caltrain, it's a holdover from the 1970s, when Southern Pacific bowed out of commuter rail service. The state stepped in and kept the trains running, but Governor Jerry Brown mandated the formation of the Joint Powers Authority of the three transit agencies to help fund Caltrain).

click to enlarge caltrain_window.jpg
Could Caltrain have better prepared itself for this eventuality? Yes and no. Even the most cynical observer of government would have been hard-pressed to predict the state's wholesale robbery of transit funds. And Caltrain was hardly rolling in cash before; Kiesling notes that "they've been going to one-time reserves every year for, like, 10 years." When fuel prices jump from $2 to $3 a gallon -- well, there go Caltrain's reserves.

On the other hand, points out transit engineer Gerald Cauthen, Caltrain invested heavily in a projected $1 billion plan to electrify its trains and do away with the diesel line. Very noble -- but perhaps not the best use of money for such a precariously funded agency. "I don't think that was necessarily an A-1 priority for them," said Cauthen. "The agency reached for the stars when it didn't have its financial ducks in a line."

Cauthen also notes that the costly boondoggle that was the BART extension to San Francisco International Airport sucked tens of millions of dollars out of SamTrans' budget -- which, obviously, trickles down to Caltrain. Or doesn't. "Just because they don't cut service entirely doesn't mean great harm won't be done," said Cauthen. "Caltrains had a very nice buildup of ridership thanks to the effectiveness of the baby bullet system." Now many of those people will be clogging the highways in their cars.

For Kiesling, though, the problem cuts even deeper than that.

"There's no reason transit running through the richest communities in this country can't be afforded," he says with frustration. "It's not like Palo Alto or anyplace on the Peninsula is poor. If one of the wealthiest regions in the country can't afford to run transit service between its two biggest cities, then there's something wrong with the way we fund transit."

Photo of electric Caltrain   |   BayRail Alliance

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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