Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Friends of Caltrain" maybe, maybe not.

People sometimes say that I'm too pessimistic and too discouraging when I say we can't stop this project. I apologize; I haven't made myself clear; it's actually not what I have intended to say. I believe that we can stop this high-speed train project, and at least keep it off the Caltrain corridor, if we are determined enough. However, I am pessimistic that we aren't determined enough. . . . .yet.

Right now, there are too few of us trying to accomplish too much, and we have not yet collectively achieved a unified position about what we do and don't want. There are too many of us making too many accommodations to either HSR, Caltrain or both. We keep trying to design routes and alignments as if the rail authority will, somehow, listen to us and discover that we have a better idea than they have. Silly us. That ship was never launched, much less sailed.

By now, especially with Van Ark's recent remarks, we should be getting the harsh picture. Caltrain and the rail authority are determined to build an elevated four track viaduct and nothing we say has -- or will -- make any difference or deter their purpose. In short, no matter what, we can't talk them out of it.

Therefore, we can and we must raise the level of discourse.

What does that mean? There needs to be a massive groundswell of opposition, of public outcry, of protest. We are hundreds; we must become thousands. Too many people still don't understand what we're in for. We finally have to stop politely pussyfooting around, reacting to each and every new rail authority's endless BS about what they are and aren't planning to do. Remember, their multi-million dollar contracts with PB and HNTB require the least costly rail line design and they must get it done on time. And, that's what they are doing. They won't let us get in the way of that.

Meanwhile, here comes another emerging political distraction waiting to happen. There's a new organization in the works, called "Friends of Caltrain." As if they didn't yet learn their lesson about the failure of Context Sensitive Solutions. What are people thinking!! Perhaps their intentions are good, but their 'mission' has clearly not been thought through. It's impetuous and smells very self-serving and political.

Actually their intention to "save" Caltrain could be counter-productive and work against our highest priority, stopping HSR. Perhaps that's their sub-text intention. Anyhow, any newly formed organization that invites Robert Cruickshank as well as all those other Caltrain employees as participants will only cut the ground out from under us. Save Caltrain? That's code for Build HSR on the Caltrain corridor.

This is the wrong fight right now. This group is being organized at the worst possible time. Caltrain is a distraction from the real war and that's about high-speed rail. Caltrain and high-speed rail are in cahoots with one another, and they are eager for us to see them that way. We must separate them as issues, and deal first and foremost with high-speed rail as the enemy that it is. Caltrain's problems are easier to resolve once we can get the HSR situation under control. But right now, the Caltrain problem can wait; they're not going anywhere, all their bankrupcy talk to the contrary notwithstanding.


Let's get the picture straight. Caltrain says they are in trouble, having lost much of their supplementary subsidies from sources such as SamTrans. Oh, wait. SamTrans and Caltrain are actually the same organization with Mike Scanlon as the CEO of both. So, Peter won't pay Paul, so to speak. That's Caltrain's dilemma, not ours.

Yes, the loss of supplementary funding is harmful; not only to Caltrain but to most urban and regional transit operators in the US. Caltrain is neither exceptional nor unusual. Which is to say, urban mass transit has a very low priority in our struggling economy today. Tell that to Anna Eshoo! You can't have it both ways; either we pay to salvage our urban/regional transit systems or we pay for a ridiculous luxury train. We certainly can't afford both!

But, Caltrain has self-imposed problems as well. Instead of solving those, they wish to upgrade their rolling stock, rails and propulsion system. And, they say that they are counting on high-speed rail to do that for them with the stimulus and other federal billions that will be made available. That's why Caltrain is so eager for HSR to join them on their (our) rail corridor. Caltrain argues that HSR-paid-for electrification will bail them out of most of their operating debt. That, of course, is nonsense.

The truth is that capital development expenditures, such as for new glitzy EMUs, are very sexy. All these wished for hardware fixes will not, of course, solve Caltrain's structural deficit problem. Capital development fund expenditures make great photo ops, while fixing the boring operating budget can always be put off another fiscal year. That's how most bureaucrats think about it. And that's how Caltrain has been thinking about it for a long, long time. Instead of lusting for that whizzy electric train for Christmas year after year, they should have been working to secure permanent supplementary funding.

Harware upgrades are not solutions to their problems. Among their real problems are a too-expensive headcount; i.e., too many employees with too large salaries. Also a too-expensive contract with the train operator, Amtrak. Caltrain's belt-tightening has been gestural, not substantive. Scanlon and his minions aren't really surprised. They've seen this problem coming for years. It should have been their highest priority. It suggests incompetent management.

Another basic problem is that Caltrain doesn't know who their friends are. They think that high-speed rail on the corridor will secure their future. Boy, are they wrong. Their future rests with us, the residents, citizens and their customers living on the Peninsula. They haven't learned that basic truth yet. And, until they do, they don't need our help.

Then, there's the problem of Caltrain's wrong business model. They think they are in the railroad business and therefore new rolling stock will make them more productive. That's also wrong. They should understand that they are in the urban and regional mass transit business, which is a deficit public utility by definition.

Furthermore, they should acknowledge that moving people around in the most effective way can't be done exclusively by rail; it must be multi-modal. Getting the first and last mile solved -- getting people to and from Caltrain stations -- will go a long way to increasing their ridership/productivity and help them do the job for which they are intended.

Our being a 'friend of Caltrain' should mean, first and foremost, 'tough love.' The make-up of this new Caltrain support group doesn't look like it can deliver on that. It's OK to be a 'friend' of Caltrain, but such friendship has to cut both ways.

The equation is simple. Caltrain needs to become a friend of all of us on the Peninsula. That way, we can be friends of Caltrain. What does that mean? We don't want high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor, but we do want Caltrain to exist and flourish. If Caltrain is willing to relinquish high-speed rail on their corridor, we on the Peninsula can make Caltrain, like the Army, "be all that it can be." That's the deal.

OK, Caltrain, your call. Friends of Caltrain? Caveat Emptor.



Friends of Caltrain

Next meeting:

Wednesday, October 27th

8:30 am

Palo Alto City Hall

250 Hamilton, Palo Alto

HR conference room: access through HR office off left side of first floor lobby

Todd McIntyre of Caltrain has agreed to do a briefing on Caltrain issues (budget, Caltrain 2025 vision, etc.) possibly with other staff. Please come and participate and send us any questions or topics beforehand you want them to address. Friends of Caltrain should be knowledgeable about Caltrain! Other agenda: further work on speakers and panel topics and speakers for January 29th. People who have agreed to work on the panels: please bring your suggestions next time!

* Nov. 9th event is confirmed. Everyone, please share with your lists:

Saving Caltrain - the Bay Area Connection

Caltrain is the mainstay of Peninsula commuter transit. Though ridership has increased dramatically with baby bullet service, and rider-based funding is among the highest in the Bay Area, Caltrain is facing a financial crisis. Unlike other Bay Area transit services with stable, dedicated funding, Caltrain depends on year-by-year funding. The recession has torn a $30 million hole in this year-by-year budget. How can Caltrain be saved and put on stable financial footing? How does Caltrain's situation fit into the overall risks and opportunities for Bay Area transit overall?

On November 9, Friends of Caltrain is hosting an educational event where you can learn more about the situation and what you can do to help. Carolyn Clevenger of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will present preliminary findings from the MTC Transit Sustainability project. Yoriko Kishimoto, former Mayor of Palo Alto, will discuss funding opportunities for Caltrain, and opportunities to get involved.

Come learn how to save Caltrain. And if you can't come to the event, sign up at Green Caltrain to stay posted on what you can do to help.

Location: Menlo Park Library, 800 Alma Street, near Caltrain

Time: Tuesday, November 9, 7-9 pm

More information:

Other topics:

* Art Lloyd is pursuing keynote speaker. Joseph Szabo, FRA administrator is not available. Art will contact Congress reps Jackie Spear, Anna Eshoo and/or Mike Honda. Other ideas: rep from Stanford University? Andy still pursuing Robert Cervero of UC Berkeley.

* we talked about the relationship between Caltrain and High Speed Rail and how that is addressed in the summit, especially there is so much in flux now and through next January. We the residents, taxpayers and riders must insist that they work together for the most cost-effective, time-efficient, community-compatible solutions for us. (If FRA rules need to be modernized, high speed rail needs a little more high speed decision-making.)

* one theme is if we cant do it here, who can?: how can we design modern rail into built-up communities in a way that addresses community needs but is cost-effective and replicable throughout state? Why cant we get greater coordination on standards to maximize flexibility and minimize costs for us, the taxpayers and riders? (e.g. on platform heights, US evidently has worlds strictest ADA standards that other systems around the world dont need to meet.)

* we will start working with state legislators who can work with us to sponsor legislation for dedicated funding for Caltrain operating funds

* potential difference between what might be the theoretically best tax (e.g. gas, parcel tax or payroll tax?) vs. what voters think they might support (e.g. tried and true sales tax). Can we make an economic case to employers that it might be better to support some payroll tax vs. pay $50,000 for construction plus hundreds of dollars/year in maintenance for each employee's parking space ?

Here's what we had agreed to earlier:

Caltrain is facing a very serious short-term funding gap (operational budget) of $29.5 million for the next fiscal year (FY2012). This would be a friends group to work on:

οlong term, dedicated, funding strategy for Caltrain

οbroaden and deepen support and advocacy base for Caltrain local and regional service

οcreate partnerships - with cities, with employers, elected officials, riders

οadvocate for financing and governance structure that will be constructive for all parties cities, employers, residents and riders, as well as Caltrain

οbuilding a transit culture through children and families

οWe will aim at January 29 2011 for regional summit

οStakeholders to include: Stanford University, leading employers (Google, Genentech, Apple, Ebay, Oracle, Stanford Research Park etc.), cyclist groups, neighborhoods along Caltrain, families and children, environmental groups (Sierra Club, Acterra), SVLG, Bay Area Council, hotels and convention centers (Moscone Center) and other potential bundlers

Draft panel topics for January 29 2011 Caltrain Summit

Phase one: defining it to optimize results for Caltrain and communities (and tightening up scope of Electrification EIR) (Phil/Art)

Financing options: pros and cons (revenue side)( e.g. regional gas tax vs. 3 county sales tax)(Yoriko/Francois) Include review of existing sources like RM2: opportunity to re-direct and use more effectively. May need new legislation.

Transit sustainability (supply side): increasing ridership and farebox recovery through integration with land use and other transit, cost containment, electrification and modernization (Gladwyn)

Integration with partners: cities including station planning, cyclists and other last mile, employers (Meghan/ Pete)

2020/2035 Vision for Bay Area and Peninsula: What will peninsula be like? What do we want it to be?


* We need strong and compelling narrative. How did we get here? What do we want and what role does Caltrain play in our future? Caltrains story. whats the benefit to homeowners, taxpayers?

* Instead of starting from what Caltrain needs, start with outreach to cities and residents and what they need and envision. i.e. What cities want; more bottom-up approach. what do we want to achieve

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