Can They Save Caltrain?
Caltrain’s crisis, already dire, is worsening. Last week Caltrain announced it faced a $30 million deficit that would lead to crippling, death-spiral inducing cuts later this year, basically providing just weekday commute services on the route and nothing else.
Saving Caltrain is essential. But that effort is harmed by the emergence in recent years of a virulent group of train-hating NIMBYs on the Peninsula, whose conception of their urban communities has no place for a modern railroad. While they claim to have been interested in attacking high speed rail, their effect has been to rip the foundations out from underneath Caltrain, and make it very difficult indeed to stabilize and save the vital service. Caltrain needs short-term revenue, but for long-term revenue stabilization they need to electrify and grade separate, so that trains can be run more frequently and more quickly, thereby increasing income. HSR money provides the long-term revenue stabilization, so anti-HSR attitudes are therefore inherently anti-Caltrain attitudes.
But HSR won’t fill the $30 million hole in Caltrain’s budget this year. As most people know by now, Caltrain has no dedicated source of operating funds other than the farebox, whereas most other Bay Area transit agencies do. Caltrain basically gets whatever VTA, SamTrans and Muni have left over, and these days that’s not very much. In order to save Caltrain, several groups are organizing meetings this month to mobilize support behind a solution. But what will the solution be? Judging by a Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit late last week, there’s no agreement on the answer:
Local transportation agencies should be merged and their funds used to support a regional transit agency, state Assemblyman Jim Beall (D-San Jose) said at the Save Caltrain summit at Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research on Friday (Jan. 21) morning.
“We should get rid of some of these organizations. We need a regional source of funding for a regional agency,” Beall said.
This is definitely something to explore. But the devil is in the details. What would a regional agency look like – meaning, what would it include? Would it merge Caltrain, Muni, SamTrans, and VTA alone – or would it add in AC Transit? BART? Golden Gate Transit? A regional approach is sensible given the regional nature of movement in the Bay Area. But SF’s needs aren’t the same as Palo Alto’s or Hayward’s, so there would still need to be some attention to local needs within a regional context. And of course, Caltrain could just as easily get lost again in a regional agency as it has as a Joint Powers Board.
Participants raised other possibilities:
Panel and round-table discussions suggested local traffic-impact fees on new construction, trading carbon credits that businesses can buy to mitigate for their carbon footprint, extending bridge-congestion pricing to other bridges beyond the Bay Bridge.
Dedicating revenue to Caltrain from a high occupancy/toll (HOT) lane on Highway 101 and a possible voter-approved gas tax increase as ways to generate stable revenue, were among other ideas suggested, officials said.
The latter three proposals in particular deserve very serious consideration. Caltrain is suffering because we massively subsidize driving. This economic crisis is proving to us that such subsidies must end. Caltrain’s ridership is rising, which makes sense – a 21st century economy prizes digital connectivity over wasting time and money sitting in a car on a freeway. Whether it’s congestion pricing the other bridges, 101 itself, a gas tax, or all three, it is long past time to stop subsidizing driving and instead start properly funding our mass transit systems.
Not everyone agrees that the public would go for a tax:
But San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said getting a new tax in the current economic climate would not go over with voters, and it would take years to accomplish.
“Caltrain will be dead by then if we just focus on a tax,” he said.
I’m not so sure I agree. While I’d like to see this be polled, I think Bay Area voters actually do understand the issues here, and would be willing to fund mass transit through a gas tax. Gas prices are rising anyway, and a 10 or 20 or even 30 cent increase won’t be noticed as prices skyrocket toward $4 a gallon anyway. While I wouldn’t yet put a gas tax increase to California voters (although one did pass in 1990, when California was less blue than it is today) it seems reasonable to believe voters in the Bay Area core would support such a proposal.
That is, if the anti-train forces don’t get their way first. While the anti-HSR folks believe their arguments can be compartmentalized and won’t bleed over to hurt Caltrain, that’s not really how political communications works. The arguments about the visual impact of new railroad infrastructure on the Peninsula – especially regarding catenary wiring and aerial structures – will be used against Caltrain too when they seek their necessary upgrades. The arguments about the fiscal problems of HSR will bleed over to Caltrain, especially since Caltrain actually can’t pay for its own operations (whereas virtually every HSR system in the world does). The basic frame that a modern passenger railroad is inappropriate for the park-like villages that some Peninsula residents believe their towns still are (but haven’t been since at least 1960) will hit Caltrain as well.
Saving Caltrain is therefore about more than just finding revenue. It’s about making the case for passenger trains, period – and marginalizing and disempowering those who criticize passenger trains on the Peninsula. While some want to draw distinctions between HSR and Caltrain, in practice those distinctions don’t really exist. This is about saving the Peninsula Rail Corridor, where passenger trains predated the cities. Short-term AND long-term fixes are both needed, and that means HSR has to be part of the solution. It doesn’t pencil out any other way.
Let’s hope that message gets delivered at Saturday’s “Save Our Caltrain!” summit at the SamTrans office in San Carlos. Organized by Palo Alto’s Yoriko Kishimoto, it’s a grassroots effort to try and solve Caltrain’s funding crisis. In attendance will be Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club. I can’t make it, but I hope others can:
Location: Samtrans Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos (near Caltrain)
Date: Saturday, January 29, 2011 Time: 9:00 am to 2:30 pm.
RSVP here: http://friendsofcaltrain.com/register