Caltrain Electrification, Bay Area Gas Tax, and other Post-Summit Thoughts
Although I wasn’t able to attend, by the accounts I’ve heard and read, yesterday’s Friends of Caltrain summit in San Carlos was a very worthwhile event that has at least sharpened the discussion about the options available for saving this vital service.
Before discussing some of the possible funding sources, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss Clem Tiller’s excellent presentation (1.1MB PDF file). Tillier added in a blog post that he didn’t quite have time to drive home some key points:
• Need for metrics to assess various infrastructure proposals
• Caltrain has “failed miserably” to market electrification to the public, not explaining that it’s primarily about speeding up trip times
• Electrification faces political obstacles that must be overcome, or else the project will not get done
• DMUs aren’t really an option, particularly because they don’t help achieve faster trip times
• A “mid-line overtake” (see Clem’s presentation) could help with providing service to Transbay Terminal if the HSR route temporarily terminates in San José.
Tillier’s presentation also emphasized the importance of electrification as the second of three steps to improve service. The first step, schedule optimization, has largely been achieved within existing rolling stock and trackage, with trains 100% full at rush hour. Electrification is the second step, and the third step is targeted (Clem’s emphasis) work on segments of the route to help speed trains, from a midline overtake in the San Carlos area to a few grade separations.
All of this makes sense in a Caltrain-focused discussion, and as far as I can tell, it’s not wholly incompatible with future HSR plans – the midline overtake would become obsolete, and theoretically would not require very costly work to be done, when HSR tracks are built.
I hope that Clem’s points were understood by the attendees, because it’s important to keep in mind that saving Caltrain is about more than just filling the short-term operating deficit – it’s about improving the infrastructure of the system to enable faster and more frequent trips, which will increase ridership and help improve the system’s finances.
Still, the deficit is the big issue looming over Caltrain right now, and as David Herron reports, several funding ideas were proposed to deal with it, including a gas tax, backed by Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. Transform’s Carli Paine proposed parking fees, tolling the Highway 101 carpool lanes, or even a payroll tax.
Let’s take a closer look at a gas tax. According to Herron:
One idea buzzing around is a 10 cent gasoline tax. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has legal authority to put a gasoline tax on the ballot, but it would requires a 2/3rds majority to enact. Polling suggests that there’s only 60% support for a new tax.
10 cents is probably too small an amount. We need to stop subsidizing driving through tax breaks on gasoline, and instead fund the retention and expansion of mass transit options via higher gas taxes. So what would a good tax be?
The most recent stats I could find, from the MTC, states that the 9-county Bay Area sold an average of 8,327,000 gallons of gas daily in 2007, for a total of 3.04 billion gallons sold that year. That figure is problematic given the impact of rising gas prices and the recession on gas sales since 2007, but let’s go with it for now.
At 3.04 billion gallons a year, here’s the revenue that would be generated annually by various gas tax increases:
10 cents: $303 million
15 cents: $456 million
20 cents: $608 million
25 cents: $760 million
30 cents: $912 million
35 cents: $1.06 billion
And so on.
How much is needed? That all depends on what the “needs” are. Last summer Mike Rosenberg, writing in the Contra Costa Times, reported that Bay Area transit agencies faced an operating deficit of $8.5 billion over the next 25 years, which translates to about $340 million annually. There’s also a capital projects deficit of $17.2 billion over the same time frame, or
$68.8 $688 million annually. So a gas tax increase of 12-13 cents would about cover it. (OK, it actually wouldn’t – as you can tell, math is not my strong suit. But the point I make below still works.)
But surely you’d want to do more. As oil prices keep rising, as growth in the Bay Area core chokes freeways, and as the great shift away from driving continues, it’s not enough to maintain 2008 service levels. We need to massively expand services. So I’d argue for going to 35 cents per gallon, to bring in a billion dollars a year in new revenues for transit.
This is especially valuable from a political perspective, where you’ll need to show your work to voters after they’ve approved a gas tax. They’ll expect to see results, and rolling in some capital project funding as well as service improvements would go a long way to accomplish that.
Any gas tax increase – whether just 10 cents or as much as 35 cents – would need to be phased in over time. In 2005, Washington State voters agreed to a 9.5-cent gas tax increase, phased in by about 3 cents a gallon per year. Nobody noticed – as gas prices soared from 2006 to 2008, 9.5 cents made hardly a difference to drivers at the pump.
Phasing in a Bay Area gas tax over 3 years or so would be quite doable, and most people wouldn’t notice the difference, especially as prices are right now headed back up to $4/gal.
But we’d still need to deal with the issue of building political support. 60% support is pretty damn strong, but the moronic 2/3 rule for tax increases is a high hurdle. Not just the MTC but other Bay Area political leaders should work on dual tracks – building public support for a gas tax increase, and working with Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature to reduce the vote requirement to 50%+1 or 55%.
While the discussion was focused on Caltrain, it’s really a much bigger matter of finding the revenue to sustain and expand the Bay Area’s mass transit systems. High speed rail needs those systems to be as robust as possible in order to bring people to and from the HSR stations to their destinations around the region. And Bay Area residents need to realize that their prosperity depends on solving this problem. Let’s get to work.