Sunday, December 26, 2010

The shortsighted vision of the 'Friends of Caltrain'

Caltrain officials said their ongoing budget meltdown could force the commuter rail line to shut down by 2012.

Caltrain officials, despite doomsday financial scenarios, acknowledged they'd gotten hefty pay and benefit increases, which they explained were due to the long hours spent saving the railroad.

This is a discussion that appeared in somewhat different form on this blog not that long ago. It bears repeating. Why? Because if we don't pay attention to what is happening, we will find ourselves in exactly the same situation that Palo Alto experienced prior to the November 2008 election.

The Palo Alto city council, led by the city mayor, passed a unanimous resolution supporting Proposition 1A, thereby enabling California (and the Peninsula) to be burdened with a nightmare of monumental proportions, the high-speed train. That was a huge mistake. And, it's going to happen all over again led by, guess who, the very same person.

Unless I'm told otherwise, I believe the agenda of the Friends of Caltrain is to promote unconditional support for generating subsidies -- probably in the form of a regressive tax on the three county Peninsula of some sort -- to help cover Caltrain's perennial operational deficits. I say unconditional since they will ask for no necessary accommodations from the Caltrain organization. My own, personal reading of this situation is that it's more wimpy compromises for personal political gains.

The issue of Caltrain's financial problems keeps re-surfacing and therefore it is necessary to draw a set of clear distinctions, especially now, when we learn that HSR won't be coming to the Caltrain corridor for at least ten years.

Before anything is done to help Caltrain, they have to get their house in order. They are mismanaged. The executive team takes home huge salaries and they are seriously over-staffed. They need an operator contract that is far more parsimonious than the current one with Amtrak. Like in many cities, the Caltrain staff-benefits package and the Amtrak benefits-package are runaway.

To be sure, the blame does not only belong to Amtrak and it's Union-driven salary scales; it also belongs to Caltrain management itself. In the case of Amtrak, fortunately Caltrain is now finally seeking other service providers to operate the trains at lower cost. That's a good thing to do, although, given their protracted structural deficit, they should have done this years ago.

Please understand that while the CEO of Caltrain is making $400K, his executive team mates are equally highly remunerated, and he is publicly wringing his hands about an impending "bankruptcy." He expects a $30 million shortfall this coming fiscal year. What's wrong with this picture?

There is a mounting effort, in the form of a Peninsula group called 'Friends of Caltrain,' that are seeking to generate permanent subsidy funding for Caltrain operations. These funds would derive, most likely, from some form of taxation. Unfortunately, there appears to be no apparent interest among this group's promoters to consider the various confounding issues connected with Caltrain's ostensible fiscal dilemma.

Maybe this plan is a good idea; maybe it isn't. Yes, I think that there should be an effective, albeit cost-effective commuter rail service on the Peninsula. It certainly doesn't need to be heavy-rail, like the current rolling stock, since that's a vestige of the freight operator technology of yesteryear. And, it should certainly be far more user/customer friendly.

Caltrain has been obsessing about electrification, expecting it to be paid for by HSR and claiming that it will help bail them out of their financial quagmire. Said another way, they think they are in the Railroad business, when they should understand that they are in the Urban Commuter Mass-Transit business. There's a huge difference between those business models.

They don't need electrification. There are other equally effective and less costly systems available. They don't need high-speed rail to bail them out. What they do need is to partner with us, the residents, citizens and their customers on the Peninsula.

However, before we give them one additional dime of our tax dollars, these are our conditions:

1.We want an independent audit from Caltrain; a complete examination of their books.

2. We also want an independent management consulting firm that specializes in urban and regional mass transit to analyze and assess their organization and management structure, with recommendations for updating, especially for their financing.

3. We want to see a revised strategic plan from Caltrain conceived without high-speed rail participation. Also, especially under the current circumstances, we want a termination of the MOU agreement between Caltrain and the Rail Authority. There's no longer a reason for it.

4. We need them to drop their electrification obsession. DEMUs (see Wikipedia) will do the same job as electrification and EMUs, but for a great deal less capital development investment. It's our money and we want it spent wisely.

5. We want a complete restructuring of the non-functional, rubber-stamp JPB. We want elected representation from each and every city on the Caltrain corridor on such an expanded Board. And we want this Board empowered with greater decision-making, accountability and oversight authority.

6. We want a break-up of the several layers and overlapping organizations led by a single CEO. Too many pies, with only one and the same finger in them all. It reeks of multiple conflicts of interest. (Mike Scanlon, Executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority and as the general manager/CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District. CEO of Caltrain and SamTrans. Board chair for the American Public Transportation Association.) That's a shell game and conflict of interest.

7. We want an airtight Caltrain agreement that they will not admit any other rail operators (besides UPRR and themselves) on the rail corridor without the concurrence of ALL the corridor cities.

I must say that the approach taken by the Caltrain 'advocates' so far is really rather shortsighted. It is the same approach taken by all those who were also high-speed rail advocates in 2008, and so enthusiastically endorsed the Prop. 1A bond issue. Now, many of them are, or should be, kicking themselves. Do we need to go through this yet again?