Caltrain Riders Try to Prevent Dramatic Service Cuts as New Blog Launches

294690855_854dcfa3b6.jpgDeep cuts could leave Caltrain closing its gates much earlier every day. Flickr photo: prawnpie
At Streetsblog, we've covered a lot of transit cuts over the past year, from Muni to AC Transit to SamTrans. But none of those agencies has seen cuts quite as devastating as what appears to be on the way at Caltrain, where all weekday off-peak and weekend service is potentially on the chopping block.

Not surprisingly, Caltrain riders are upset, including many of Streetsblog's readers. Soren Peterson, a Caltrain commuter who lives in San Francisco, said the cuts would force him to drive a lot more.

"I live in Potrero Hill and commute to Palo Alto for work," explained Peterson. "Although I try to be out by the last limited train of the evening, this is not always possible and as a result I occasionally depend on one of the evening trains."

Those evening trains could soon be gone, according to Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon. At the Caltrain Board of Directors meeting last Thursday, Scanlon announced that the agency is broke, and may need to wipe out fifty percent of its service. That's in part because the state has pulled $30 million in funding from the agency in the past three years, but it's also because Caltrain relies on unstable local funding sources.

The three local transit agencies that contribute money to Caltrain -- Muni, VTA, and SamTrans -- are all financially strapped themselves this year, and Scanlon, who also manages SamTrans, said he'll be asking his other agency to reduce its contribution to Caltrain by 70 percent. If that happens, the SFMTA and the VTA would likely follow suit, leaving Caltrain with a $30 million deficit -- nearly a third of its $97 million budget.

"We've just begun working on this budget and we wanted to come out early because we are partners, and let our partners know that SamTrans was seriously considering reducing their contribution," said SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn.

Caltrain would preserve its commuter-hour service, but riders would be left in the lurch if they ever needed to return home early or late. "I already have to come in a bit earlier then I'd like because of the schedule (either I'm 30-40 minutes early or I'm 30-40 minutes late,) so any tweaking could mean an even longer day," said Caltrain commuter (and prolific Streetsblog commenter) Mike Sonn.

"We won't be buying a car, so if the cuts are bad enough I'll probably have to explore SamTrans options or find someone to car pool with," he added.

Sonn and Peterson both said they're looking for ways to productively voice their concerns about the cuts. One way to do that is by contacting local elected officials, which are listed on the BayRail Alliance's website.

Caltrain has a complex governance structure that doesn't answer to any elected official directly, but BayRail Alliance President Andy Chow said it's time to look at changing that.

"For now, we are trying to find out the situation so that we can determine the necessary action," he said. "So far Caltrain hasn't declared a fiscal emergency or scheduled public meetings to reduce service. I believe that some type of legislative change in Sacramento is necessary, and that we will need to show our support for it."

One of the best courses of action may be to simply keep riding Caltrain, said Chow. "The more riders use the service, the less likely the elected officials would want to eliminate it."

BayRail Alliance has also set up a new blog called Green Caltrain to follow the most recent developments. One of its most recent post looks at the specter of turning Caltrain into a commuter-only rail system, as well as exploring Caltrain's funding situation. Another dissects "anti-Caltrain arguments."

The blog's authors hope it will provide resources for constructively responding to the challenges facing Caltrain.

For their part, Caltrain supporters are looking for direction on how to try to stop the cuts.

"I'm definitely thinking about contacting elected officials (to tell them how important Caltrain is for my mobility and thus, how important it is to me that there be some sort of political support for a dedicated funding source)," said Peterson. "But I'm unclear of what would be the best use of my time."

Caltrain must balance its budget by June 1 of next year, but cuts could come as soon as this fall. One clear way to make your voice heard is to attend the next Caltrain Board of Directors meeting, on May 6 at the SamTrans Administrative Offices, 1250 San Carlos Ave., in San Carlos. The meeting is at 10 a.m.