Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Will no one rid me of these troublesome rail operators?"

There seems to be more than enough stupidity to go around.  I just read this article, below, and the blood drained momentarily from my head.  OHMYGOD!  Sell Caltrain to the CHSRA?  With what funds?  That's not even legal!  What are they thinking?

Recently, the "Friends of Caltrain" mentioned in the article sent out a notice of self-promotion in which they began by saying that  "Caltrain isn't broken - let's not break it."

To which I replied:  The basic premise here is incorrect:  Caltrain is broken!  Otherwise they would not be approaching bankruptcy.  The deal should be to let Caltrain go away in order to save (and improve) Peninsula Commuter Rail.

Yes, some of the problems are exogenous; the Recession, for example.  However most problems are the result of mismanagement.  Ridership increase numbers are only meaningful if considered in context.  What percent of all Peninsula commuters -- ALL Peninsula Commuters -- take Caltrain? If Caltrain ridership increases from ten to twenty riders, that's a hundred percent increase, but is still meaningless.

Caltrain has been declaring annual "fiscal emergencies" well before the Recession.  Caltrain has tied itself to HSR as a self-serving marriage of convenience, apparently not to the benefit of Caltrain. I'm patiently waiting for a separation and divorce.

The Caltrain organization (PCJPB) must be separated from the other two SMC transit agencies, all three now under Mike Scanlon's thumb. In this case, three overlapping organizations is a very bad idea.

Caltrain must be decomposed and re-organized into a larger, Bay Area organization, and at the State level, such as within the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board. That way, with BART, a legitimate, state subsidized rail transit system can, and should, ring the Bay.

This is not a Peninsula problem to be solved on the Peninsula.  It's a Bay Area problem, to be solved at the state level. Get Simitian involved.  Talk with Malcolm Dudley, who knows more about this than everyone else put together.   Where the hell is the MTC when you need them?

That is how to "save Caltrain for the long term."

Caltrain is now floundering to save itself.  They've been sending out their spokespeople to promote their worthiness and honorable aspirations for electrification, for which they don't have capital development funds.  This is not to say that Caltrain is seeking to save a cost/effective and parsimonious Peninsula commuter railroad, just itself as an organization.  

That goes for its overseers, the rubber-stamp Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.  This appointed group of political insiders is also seeking to perpetuate it's role, although that role is merely yessing anything that overpaid Mike Scanlon, the CEO, wishes.

Much of the damage that's being done on the Peninsula comes from certain local politicians whose ambitions drive them to do anything to keep their name in the headlines.  They appear to be neither analytical or critical. They are perpetually running for higher office.  Their function is to create cheer-leading organizations orchestrated by themselves for self-promoting purposes. The PCC is one such example. There are others on the Peninsula, the role of which is to please all the stake-holders, such as the High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain.   

Now this. 'Friends of Caltrain,' indeed. Caltrain doesn't need friends.  It needs tough love. Urban public mass transit is not a local community issue, it's a regional one.  And it must be solved regionally. Not to sound like a Republican, but this is not a problem to be solved by throwing more taxes at it.  

Among those "long term strategies" that are described in Silverfarb's article, some merit consideration. To save time and space, we won't address those that make little or no sense.   Even its supporters appear to agree that taxation of whatever form is a very bad idea.  Enough said.  

However, Egon Terplan, regional planning director of SPUR, says, "One day, all rail systems on both sides of the Bay could eventually be a single system."  That idea makes the most sense.  As we said before, integrating BART with the Peninsula Commuter Rail Line under the State based Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board makes a great deal of sense and ought to be explored, but starting right now, not "one day."

Long-term strategies emerge for Caltrain
April 14, 2011, 03:53 AM 
By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Saving Caltrain for the long term will be a regional effort that will likely include some sort of tax that residents in three counties will have to ultimately approve if certain rail advocates get their way.

But a tax is not the only solution, some proposals include handing over control of Caltrain to BART or to even sell off the entire three-county system to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

While momentum builds for a regional tax to be put on the November 2012 ballot, there has been little discussion about what happens to Caltrain if voters decide to reject such a tax.

A nonprofit public policy group based in San Francisco has proposed some solutions that bypass voter-approved tax measures.

How Caltrain is currently governed is also up for debate as the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board struggles to keep the trains running in light of a staggering $30 million structural deficit.

While ideas are myriad on how to establish a dedicated funding stream for the service, which it lacks, some are starting to gain steam.

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association has joined the conversation on how to save Caltrain and has offered up some solutions that include regional parcel and gas taxes, congestion pricing on Highway 101 and Interstate 280 and extending the Bay Area Rapid Transit sales tax to San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

SPUR published a discussion paper last week that includes the solutions. The paper, however, also included such remedies as creating an umbrella agency to coordinate BART and Caltrain; have BART govern Caltrain; and sell Caltrain to the California High-Speed Rail Authority and have it operate the service.

SPUR is a 100-year-old public policy organization that promotes good planning and government in San Francisco but has branched out in recent years to address regional transportation issues.

Caltrain lacks a dedicated funding source and relies on contributions from the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), Santa Clara County’s Valley Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to survive.

SamTrans is reducing its contribution to Caltrain by about $10 million this year due to its own financial struggles and both VTA and MUNI will follow suit, pushing Caltrain’s deficit to the $30 million mark.

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has come to Caltrain’s rescue this year through fund swaps and other methods, keeping the trains running for the long term will take a whole new funding strategy.

The Silicon Valley Leadership group has made saving Caltrain its top regional issue and another group, Friends of Caltrain, is working hard to promote the train’s necessity on the Peninsula.

Former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto supports SPUR’s effort to find funding solutions for Caltrain but realizes convincing the public to support additional taxes — particularly a regional gas tax — may be a hard sell.

“The polling has been weak and that is discouraging,” Kishimoto said.

A gas tax makes a lot of “theoretical sense,” she said.

The MTC does have authority to put a 10-cent regional gas tax on the ballot that would raise about $300 million a year. It requires two-thirds voter approval, however.

Polling data consistently indicates non-support for such a tax, said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler.

“As gas prices increase, it may become a harder sell,” Rentschler said.

Congestion pricing would be a challenge, he said, because high-occupancy toll lanes would not be a real possibility in northern San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

A parcel tax, by nature, is rigid and must show a direct benefit to the parcel being taxed, he said.

When it comes to governance, Rentschler said Caltrain’s problem is that it relies on voluntary contributions from the three transit agencies that support it.

“If one of the three gets a cold then Caltrain gets pneumonia,” Rentschler said.

Perhaps a small regional sales tax could support Caltrain, he said.

“No doubt, Caltrain is a bit of an orphan when it comes to funding, but it’s not completely unstable,” he said.

Ridership at Caltrain is actually climbing despite fare increases and service cuts. Farebox return is 43 percent for Caltrain, one of the highest returns for any transit agency in the Bay Area.

“It wouldn’t take that much of a sales tax in the three counties. Even less than a half cent,” he said.

Selling Caltrain to the California High-Speed Rail Authority may be too bold of a statement, Rentschler said, but the relationship between the two groups will one day be a critical one.

“It is about integration. Caltrain could morph into a complementary service for high-speed rail,” he said.

Another idea, not floated by SPUR, would be to impose a fee on new transit-oriented developments proposed in all three counties along the Caltrain corridor.

With a push for building high-density transit-oriented developments along the corridor, growth in property tax revenue could be dedicated to Caltrain, said Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board and a San Francisco supervisor.

Kishimoto supports taking an inventory of all transit-oriented development proposed on the corridor to gauge whether an incremental property tax assessment would generate enough revenue to support Caltrain.

Whatever the ultimate solution is, Caltrain cannot survive without a dedicated funding stream, Elsbernd said.

SPUR is a membership-driven nonprofit agency that has a civic voice on the MTC. 

Walkable communities and transit-oriented development are the framework for future growth in the Bay Area, said Egon Terplan, SPUR’s regional planning director.

“It is inconceivable to plan for the region without Caltrain,” Terplan said.

One day, Terplan said, all rail systems on both sides of the Bay could eventually be a single system, Terplan said.

Caltrain staved off deep cuts this year and will likely be spared from big cuts next year but after that one-time funds will likely dry up.

Rail advocates anticipate having some sort of tax measure on the ballot in November 2012.
Caltrain appreciates the outpouring of support from the regional groups but said it is too early yet to determine the best approach to finding a long-term solution.

 “The issue we are most concerned about is finding a long-term, dedicated funding source for the Caltrain system. We welcome all support, ideas and efforts from the various community groups, but it is too early to determine what the best solution is for Caltrain right now,” Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew wrote in an email. “Moving forward, we will continue working with SPUR, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Friends of Caltrain to determine what is the most feasible public approach to addressing Caltrain’s long-term financial stability.” 

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.