Caltrain Chief: We’ll Be Fine If We Don’t Starve on the Way to the Banquet

IMG_2014.jpgSan Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nat Ford at today's Caltrain Board meeting. Photo: Michael Rhodes

There's still no relief in sight for Caltrain, which faces a dire financial situation that could force the agency to cut 50 percent of service by next year.

Even if the train operator pulls a rabbit out of its hat for the coming fiscal year, the budget deficit for the following year will be even worse, forcing it to ultimately come up with a more stable source of funding, instead of relying on major contributions from SamTrans, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

At the Caltrain Board's first meeting since Executive Director Mike Scanlon dropped the bombshell that his other transit agency, SamTrans, would likely be pulling 70 percent of its contribution to Caltrain, staff presented a budget picture that continues to look catastrophic.

Nat Ford, who heads the SFMTA and also sits on the Caltrain Board, confirmed that his agency would follow suit in pulling an equivalent part of its contribution, as was expected.

Caltrain originally expected to have expenses of about $102.4 million in fiscal year 2011 (FY12), but only $78.9 million in revenue. It's since identified about $6 million in savings, and will get back $5 million in state transit assistance (STA) funds, which were slashed by the state earlier, leaving a deficit of $12.5 million. In fiscal year 2012 (FY12), the outlook is even bleaker, with just $63.8 million in revenue projected, leaving a $38.9 million deficit.

The agency's PowerPoint slide with the FY12 figure states ominously, "Unknown if there is a service model that can operate at FY2012 revenue level."

Scanlon acknowledged that Caltrain is the "stepchild" of the other transit agencies, "despite these loving foster parents." He also defended his decision to pull 70 percent of SamTrans' contribution, casting the move as a matter of self-preservation for the agency. "We need to do something to wean ourselves off of Caltrain," said Scanlon, pointing to a $28.5 million deficit at SamTrans, out of a $135 million budget.

Caltrain has lost $10 million in each of the past three years, and all three of the contributing transit agencies have also lost STA funds, leaving them with less money to send Caltrain's way. In addition to floating a ballot measure before voters that would create a dedicated revenue stream, Scanlon said the solution lies in electrifying and modernizing the diesel railroad.

"If we do electrification, it cuts our financial problems in half," he said. "It makes for a better business model."

The Caltrain Board will hold public meetings on the proposed cuts before taking action. Reducing service by 50 percent would likely mean eliminating midday, post-peak evening, and weekend service.

Ironically, Caltrain is set to make a massive service cut just a few years before the corridor could get a major upgrade because of the planned high-speed rail line. That would mean electrification of Caltrain and full grade separation along the Peninsula.

Scanlon described the high-speed rail capital improvements as a banquet which Caltrain will only enjoy if it doesn't die in the meantime. "If we don't starve along the way, we'll be fine," he said.