Friday, January 21, 2011

Yet more on Caltrain: Playing poker with the big boys

We've been talking about Caltrain on this blog for some time.  The problem has come up in the media because high-speed rail was going to bail out Caltrain -- according to Caltrain -- by building grade separations and electrifying the rail corridor in exchange for using the rail corridor to run two additional tracks for high-speed rail.  More about that in a moment.

Well, that bailout promise is less certain than ever and Caltrain is now crying "WOLF."  They say that they will be shy $30 billion in their $100 billion budget next year.  (Have I told you yet that the CEO of Caltrain makes annual income of as much or more than the President of the United States?)

The same people who wanted to 'Save High-Speed Rail' in 2008,(you know who you are!) are now back to 'Save Caltrain.'   Apparently, they learned nothing from their prior experience.  It should become obvious that their intend is to remain in the public eye as they seek ever higher public office. Unfortunately, that benefits their public image, but their constituents on the Peninsula not at all!

Let's make it clear right now that electrifying Caltrain or grade separating their street crossings will not improve Caltrain's bottom line.  It's pure wishful thinking to believe that.  Before going further, here is what we do believe in and what we want:
We want an effective public mass transit commuter service on the Peninsula.
We understand and agree that it must be a subsidized service that needs reliable operational support beyond its farebox revenues that provide only 40% of its needs.

But, and here's the hard part; we also want a well-managed public transit line that is run parsimoniously, optimally and is highly integrated and coordinated with all the other public transit operators and modalities on the Peninsula.  And, we've never had that. 

This needs to be said many times: There should be no Peninsula citizen effort to generate a permanent, tax-based subsidy source for Caltrain without conditions; a quid pro quo.  Let's dig back to last December and re-state those conditions: 

1.We want an independent audit from Caltrain; a complete examination of their books. Just where, exactly, is Caltrain's oversight and accountability. . . .and don't tell me it's the Joint Powers Board?

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 just about 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 new 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.
Now let's get back to the first point; that is, electrification.  Caltrain, and this is one of it's problems, persists in seeking capital development of its facilities, thereby claiming it will improve its bottom line.  That's nonsense.  They need to make a clear distinction between capital development and operations.  It's the operations that are highly deficient.  In times of economic austerity, capital development can be delayed, but operational funding can't.  Until they acknowledge that publicly, they don't deserve any help from us.

Someone very wise about the ways of Caltrain said, upon hearing of their possible bankruptcy, "Let them go bankrupt. Then they will have to clean house, get new management and get their act together." It will benefit all of us. Please be assured that Caltrain operations will continue even if on a reduced diet.  We should not be threatened into rash actions that benefit Caltrain management only, and at our expense.

Oh, and one more thing.  I find it reprehensible that the press, including Mr. Cabanatuan, do not also point out the payroll/headcount, salaries and other self sustained liabilities that Caltrain has placed on itself. 

Caltrain now publicly keeps claiming austerity.  Yet, we have recently read in several places about their salary increases and lavishness.  And, the press would do well to challenge the organizational Venn  diagram of multiple overlapping jurisdictions all under the control of a single CEO.  

Caltrain seeks answers to funding crisis
Michael Cabanatuan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, January 21, 2011

With Caltrain facing a $30 million deficit - and, some fear, the end of the line - community groups and transportation officials are rallying to help the 148-year-old commuter railroad survive by finding a stable source of funding.

This morning, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is convening a Caltrain summit at Stanford to start building a coalition to save the train system. On Jan. 29, Friends of Caltrain, a community group, will stage its own summit at the railroad's offices. The groups are working with each other, and Caltrain, to come up with proposals that could range from enticing new riders to putting tax measures before voters.

"We want to create a groundswell of support for Caltrain that cuts across all three counties," said Yoriko Kishimoto, a former Palo Alto mayor and leader of Friends of Caltrain. "Caltrain is an essential service, and it's only going to become more essential."

All 28 Bay Area transit systems, and most across the country, are mired in budget troubles, but Caltrain faces a particularly difficult situation. The railroad, run by a joint powers agency with members from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, has no dedicated source of operating funds - no state or federal assistance, no sales or property tax revenue - and is forced to rely on whatever Muni, SamTrans and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority can afford to chip in. These days, that's not much.

"It's sort of like being everyone's second choice for the prom," said Carl Guardino, chief executive officer of the Leadership Group, a technology trade association that's been involved in transportation issues.

All three transit agencies, struggling to balance their own budgets, have cut their contributions to Caltrain, and the expectation for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, is for further reductions.

Caltrain's projections call for a $30.3 million gap in its $102.9 million budget. That leaves enough money for the agency to keep running commute-hour service - but nothing else. Caltrain currently operates 86 weekday trains that run late into the night, plus weekend service and special trains to events including San Francisco Giants games. The trains carry an average of 40,000 riders a day.

Without an infusion of cash, Caltrain would have to slash its service to 48 weekday trains running only during the morning and evening commute hours.

It's not something the agency wants to do, said Christine Dunn, a Caltrain spokeswoman, but after raising fares and trimming service, the agency is left with few, if any, other choices.

"It's really disheartening to have built the service up as we have over the past few years, only to have to cut it," she said. "To look at something this drastic is devastating."

Participants in both summits will try to find a range of funding options, Guardino and Kishimoto said. 

In addition to the traditional approaches of raising fares or cutting service, it will also consider whether adding free Wi-Fi or more bike capacity would make a difference, and if changes in employer-provided transit passes could help.

Other approaches could involve selling or leasing Caltrain property or entering into joint development efforts with private parties. Finally, there's the possibility of seeking funding that would require approval from voters or the Legislature: sales, property or transfer taxes; gas taxes; vehicle registration fees; regional transit taxes; or bridge or highway tolls.

"Caltrain is one of those services that you can take for granted, but if we take it for granted we'll be in trouble," Kishimoto said. "The time has come for us to come together and do what we need to do to keep Caltrain going."

Guardino agrees.

"This is a call to action," he said.

Saving Caltrain

Today's meeting is by invitation only. A second meeting is open to the public but requires registration. It will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 29 at the SamTrans auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos. Registration: The event is sponsored by Friends of Caltrain.

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at

Read more: