No April Fool’s Joke: Caltrain In Serious Trouble
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s war on public transportation could claim an extremely high-profile victim: Caltrain. Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon gave a dire warning today about massive cuts that would wipe out half of Caltrain’s services:
Caltrain has gone broke and will likely need to wipe out half its service — including weekend, nighttime and midday trains — officials warned Thursday, bracing passengers for a major shake-up to the popular commuter line that links San Francisco to the South Bay.
“This is not an April fool’s joke,” Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon told the agency’s board of directors. “This is real. We’re at a watershed moment where there’s a possibility this railroad could go away.”
Scanlon said the service cuts, which would idle trains for much of the day, would need to be completed by June 2011, although the agency may begin slashing its schedule as soon as this fall.
The impact of these cuts would be nothing short of catastrophic for the Peninsula’s economy, which relies on Caltrain to get workers to their jobs and consumers to retailers (and in many ways that includes the San Francisco Giants and San Jose Sharks) to a far greater extent than is realized. Losing this much Caltrain service would be a massive step backward for the Bay Area, a step away from mass transit and back toward the failed model of dependence on cars and freeways that the region had begun to move beyond.
As Michael Scanlon pointed out, the loss of state funding has been simply devastating:
The agency has lost $10 million in funding from the state each of the past three years. And for more than a year, it has been losing riders, which account for 40 percent of its revenue.
But now a new, more damaging problem has emerged. Scanlon, who is also the CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans, said he will ask that agency’s board of directors to lower its Caltrain contribution by nearly 70 percent by July 2011.
SamTrans, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco Muni each provide Caltrain with a subsidy, which combined amounts to $39.4 million. But with the smaller SamTrans contribution, VTA and Muni will lower their shares proportionately. SamTrans, Muni and VTA all recently cut service and raised fares, and Scanlon said they are “beyond broke.”
A fare increase has not been proposed, as officials say it would drive away even more riders. They also don’t expect to propose any ballot measures, such as tax increases, citing the recession.
In short, because Arnold Schwarzenegger has used the state budget crisis to wage war on public transportation to benefit his oil company donors, with a Department of Finance full of right-wing ideologues who demand mass transit pay for itself when freeways aren’t held to the same standard, local transit agencies are hemorrhaging money, worsening Caltrain’s already precarious situation.
Ultimately the response will have to be some sort of regional funding source to support mass transit. There should be a Bay Area-wide tax, ideally on gas, to fund operations of the region’s transit agencies, from Muni to BART, from Caltrain to AC Transit, and the smaller agencies in between.
And of course, there will need to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore state public transportation funds. This needs to become a top priority not just of the passenger rail advocacy community, but of Californians as a whole. In the summer of 2008 local transit agencies had much more capacity to handle the massive increase in ridership that helped California avoid the worst of the gas price increase. As we face another increase in gas prices later this year, we are left with much less transit to fall back on. The result could be a choking off of our state’s halting steps toward economic recovery.
This also raises the question of what Caltrain’s woes mean for high speed rail. This could go one of two ways: the woes are used against HSR, or used to bolster HSR.
The first path will be taken by those who already criticize HSR. These deniers will claim that Caltrain’s crisis proves that passenger rail isn’t viable in this state (despite the fact that there has been passenger rail service on this corridor for over a hundred years). Doubt about Caltrain’s future will be used to fuel doubt about all passenger rail, despite Caltrain’s wide popularity in the region. Others may argue for saving Caltrain but suggesting we do so at HSR’s expense, creating a false division between Caltrain service and the HSR project.
The second path will be taken by those of us who understand that passenger rail is one of the keys to California’s future. As Michael Scanlon and Bob Doty have been saying for some time now, electrification and grade separation is essential to Caltrain’s survival. Here’s what Doty had to say at the Palo Alto HSR teach-in back in September 2009:
Another key point Doty made, one that keeps getting overlooked on the Peninsula, is that HSR is necessary to Caltrain’s survival. Caltrain needs to electrify in order to survive. That’s the only way they can accommodate future ridership growth, the only way they can manage operating costs, the only way they can have financial survival with a 75% farebox recovery rate (Doty’s prediction).
The HSR project and capital funds are how Caltrain will be able to electrify its operations and achieve the stable operating costs and increased levels of service that are needed to achieve the 75% farebox recovery ratio. HSR is the key to Caltrain’s survival, not some external threat or unrelated or unnecessary project. We’ve often said HSR is a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that’s especially true of Caltrain.
What this also shows is the massively shortsighted and ultimately reckless approach of the Peninsula NIMBYs and their enablers in local government. Despite months of warnings about the problems facing Caltrain, these groups claimed – quite wrongly – that the status quo was working out just fine and didn’t need to be changed. As we see, the status quo is actually killing Caltrain. Without the improvements that HSR brings to the corridor, it’s difficult to see how Caltrain can survive. And even then, an immediate rescue for it and other transit agencies is absolutely essential for the survival of passenger rail.
While Peninsula NIMBYs and local government officials wasted time challenging the CHSRA ridership projections, filing lawsuits, and hiring lobbyists to challenge the HSR project, they were letting the Caltrain crisis grow worse. Instead of working to produce a Peninsula rail corridor that can thrive for the next few generations, they’ve avoided the core issues in order to focus on aesthetic values over the continued operation and improvement of passenger rail in their communities.
For some of the Peninsula NIMBYs, like the Stone Pine Lane Gang, the collapse of Caltrain might not bother them at all. Prosperous beneficiaries of a 20th century growth model that has failed most of their neighbors and fellow Californians, these kind of NIMBYs apparently aren’t motivated by the need to preserve Caltrain, assuming that they’ll always be able to afford to drive, and if there are fewer train horns, so much the better.
The Caltrain crisis shows clearly that renewed investment in, and improvements to, passenger rail should be one of the top priorities of the Peninsula and of the state. Let’s hope that Scanlon’s warning shakes the Peninsula out of its stupor, brings an end to the efforts to kill HSR, and instead produces new unity around saving Caltrain in the short-term and ensuring its long-term survival through partnership with high speed rail.