Caltrain’s Crisis Is Real
Yesterday’s post deserves a follow-up, as the Caltrain issue is real – and unfortunately, so too is the disbelieving reaction. Mike Rosenberg again provides an excellent article on the topic, quoting Californians For High Speed Rail Executive Director Brian Stanke:
“There is perhaps greater awareness now that despite different points of view or concerns about high-speed rail, people really need to work together so that Caltrain doesn’t go into this catastrophic death spiral,” Stanke said.
Stanke is right on both points (and I say that not just because I’m the Chair of CA4HSR). There have already been some preliminary discussions among some of the pro- and anti-HSR groups about exploring joint efforts to save Caltrain. It’s my intention to see those efforts succeed, because of Stanke’s second point: Caltrain is very much facing a death spiral.
Here’s how it works. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been attacking public transit funds for at least three years now. In February 2009 the governor proposed and won a 100% reduction – total elimination – of the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund. A whopping $3.5 billion in state funding has been cut over the last three years. As a result, the agencies that fund Caltrain have been financially devastated: Muni has faced a deficit of over $100 million, SamTrans nearly $30 million, VTA nearly $100 million. In order to save themselves, they’ve had to cut what they give to Caltrain.
That exacerbates an existing crisis at Caltrain. Lacking its own operating revenue source aside from farebox recovery, Caltrain is wholly at the mercy of these other agencies – and ultimately at the mercy of a state government that has turned its back on public transit. That situation has been exacerbated by the recession, which contributes to reduced ridership, and by the ongoing rise in oil prices which contributes to steadily increasing operating costs. Even if the short-term problems are solved, the long-term issue of rising costs and limitations on service frequency due to using slower diesel trains remains.
In yesterday’s post I laid out the three steps that are needed to fix Caltrain and fully address both the short-term and long-term problems:
1. Restore the state budget cuts to transit agencies, so Muni and SamTrans aren’t having to cut off Caltrain to save themselves.
2. Provide Caltrain with its own source of operating funds, perhaps as part of a region-wide gas tax increase to fund operations on all the major systems.
3. Leverage high speed rail funds to help build the infrastructure that can be shared by an electrified Caltrain “regional rail” in order to satisfy the “independent utility” requirements of federal stimulus funding.
That last point is obviously the one that’s hard for some on the Peninsula to swallow, as Rosenberg’s article noted:
Some bullet-train detractors said Friday they think Caltrain may simply be trying to secure more money or to shift the public in favor of high-speed rail.
“I think it’s disingenuous to say, ‘If we don’t have high-speed rail come up through here, we’re not going to have Caltrain,’ ” said Menlo Park resident Russ Peterson, who has a pending lawsuit against the rail Authority. “That I find to be a little bit of fear-mongering, that you get both or none.”…
Some appear willing to stop both projects. The Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, a Peninsula group of which Peterson is a member, and the Planning and Conservation League warned Caltrain earlier this month not to approve the electrification project, citing high-speed rail concerns. Caltrain called the letter from Gary Patton, the groups’ attorney, a “veiled threat of litigation,” and its board delayed the $1.3 billion project’s approval until May or June.
Gary Patton, you’ll recall, is the anti-passenger rail activist who boasted at the September 2009 Palo Alto teach-in that he helped kill a proposed train to link Santa Cruz and San José, a train that commuters on traffic-choked Highway 17 and Highway 1 desperately want.
Another view comes from CARRD:
“It’s easy (for Caltrain) to say ‘all or none’ and have this white knight come in and save you,” said Nadia Naik, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Palo Alto-based group of bullet train critics. “We all need to come together as a community and figure out first and foremost what it will take to save our local commute service.”
Which I read as saying something fundamentally different from Peterson and Patton – that Naik doesn’t want to be leveraged into backing HSR as-is, but neither does she want to just abandon Caltrain. Peterson and Patton, however, seem perfectly happy to watch Caltrain die.
To circle back to Brian Stanke’s point, it seems to me that the real divide here isn’t about whether you’re pro- or anti-HSR. It’s about whether you’re pro- or anti-passenger rail. Supporters of passenger rail will be motivated to save Caltrain as well as build HSR right – in a cost-effective way that integrates well with the community while serving the needs of all Californians. As Brian Stanke pointed out, despite some key differences on how that vision gets implemented, there is a lot of agreement on that basic vision. And that does mean there’s a path forward to work together on the Peninsula.
I can understand that people don’t want to get leveraged into supporting HSR because it’s the only way to save Caltrain – but on the other hand, it’s difficult to see where the funds to complete Caltrain electrification can come from if HSR money isn’t included.
Electrification is the key to Caltrain’s long-term survival. And that’s not a new claim. Groups like the BayRail Alliance have been working on it for nearly 30 years. Caltrain has adopted electrification as part of its own long-range plan since 1999.
However, Caltrain doesn’t have the funding to pull off the $1.3 billion project on its own. But if they could piggyback on the HSR project, then they could get electrification paid for. Without HSR, electrification will still need to happen, but it will be far more difficult to fund the project.
Just as some of the Peninsula groups don’t want Caltrain’s crisis to be used to force acceptance of HSR, we don’t want HSR opposition to be used to force acceptance of Caltrain’s demise.
Clearly, the status quo is no longer viable, and the Caltrain corridor is going to have to change to survive. It seems that there’s wide agreement on that, and that HSR should be part of the solution, and that HSR should be built efficiently and integrate well into the community. That should be a solid basis for moving forward on saving Caltrain, both in the short-term and the long-term.