Caltrain Riders Plead to Save Stations as Board Declares Fiscal Emergency

A speaker testifies at today's Caltrain Board of Directors meeting. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The Caltrain Board of Directors declared a fiscal emergency for the third year in a row today as a step toward enacting severe service cuts to help close a $30 million deficit. At the meeting, dozens of speakers representing Peninsula families, city agencies and organizations plead with the board not to close stations next month.

“For the last ten years, Caltrain has either relied on one-time emergency funding or declared a fiscal emergency,” said Shirley Johnson of the Caltrain Bikes ONBoard project of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. She criticized the board for relying “year after year” on a fiscal emergency, which grants them the ability to quickly execute service cuts without environmental review. “It’s wrong,” she said.

If the proposed cuts are approved, service on the system would be reduced to peak-hour trains only, which agency staff says carry 80 percent of its ridership. However, the suspension of service at up to 16 stations along the corridor was heavily criticized as an ineffective means to save operational costs.

“The $30 million deficit has been created by our county governments decommitting from the funding necessary to offset these costs,” said daily rider Tom Gormond. “The actions being proposed… will do nothing in terms of reducing the primary problem of all commuter railroads – the high amount of fixed costs that are required to provide service.  In fact, they will have the opposite effect by reducing ridership and increasing the need for greater amounts of government support.”

“Obviously, ever increasing amounts of government support will not happen, so the demise of Caltrain is almost ensured,” he added.

The majority of the roughly 1,350 public comments received prior to today’s meeting focused on station closures. Many speakers argued they would cripple the mobility of Caltrain-dependent communities.

“Without Lawrence Station, we wouldn’t be able to have our daughter go to her school, plain and simple,” said June Moss, a single mother of two, who echoed the sentiments voiced by many students and parents at the hearing.

“Caltrain is the central component of the transit infrastructure serving our burgeoning biotechnology industry,” said South San Francisco Mayor Kevin Mullin, who argued with other Peninsula city officials, developers and employers that station closures would undermine investments in transit-oriented development along the corridor.

“Our city’s sole Caltrain station will be critical in servicing” the 6,000 new employees at an office complex planned nearby, he said.

Real estate located within one-half of a mile of Burlingame station is estimated to be worth $100 million more than other development due to its proximity, according to Mayor Terry Nagel.

“I consider Caltrain the aorta, and I consider the rest of these agencies the veins,” said rider Victoria Carmona, who praised the vital role of Peninsula transit agencies. “I feel that if you cut them off, the result will be necrosive. You may never get the ridership back.”

An increase in the gas tax, parking fees, and seeking advertising revenue were among the suggestions roundly urged by speakers as dedicated funding sources to help close the budget gap. Some riders voiced their willingness to pay higher fares to retain service.

“Isn’t this an educative moment for our young students to learn about sustainability issues?” reflected Father Paul Sheridan, President of Bellarmine Preparatory School, which is near the College Park Station. “Isn’t it ironic,” he asked, “that a lot of press is on the high-speed rail, whereas it’s the local service that’s being threatened?”

A final vote on service cuts is scheduled for April 7.

  • I wasn’t able to attend this meeting, but as a regular Caltrain commuter I did previously write in with many of the same points expressed by the speakers. One point of emphasis- I also expressed my willingness to pay a higher fare to retain service, which is pretty unique in this day and age. I did note that this would ideally be coupled with a region- or state-wide mandate for employer pre-tax transit benefit programs (“qualified transportation fringe benefits” in IRS legalese), which my employer still hasn’t implemented despite repeated urgings on my and others’ part. By cutting transit costs by 30-40%, they can really take the sting out of these kinds of fare increases.

    Would be interested to hear if other Streetsblogians have encountered that same kind of employer inertia, or if these transit benefit programs are getting pretty common now.

  • John Murphy

    @throgers thanks to Ross Mirkarimi, pre-tax commuter benefits are legally required in San Francisco for companies with 20+ employees.

  • patrick carroll

    The priest has a point. Billions are being squandered in studies for high speed rail while local train service is failing.

    Maybe once Caltrain fails, the tracks could be ripped out and a busway put in for all the luxury buses that ferry employees from SF to Apple, Google and Facebook. Those people are too good to mix with others on public transit, why should their buses have to mix with other drivers on the road?

  • Billions? Not really, off by a factor of 10. And that is different monies, the reality of operating vs capital funding is still lost on people, huh?

    And thank you for your constructive idea. While reading that I thought you were going to say rip it up and put down BART tracks, but you took it an extra step into the crazy. Well done.

  • patrick carroll

    I am a dedicated rail transit user; I don’t drive, I take BART and Muni Metro to and from work, plus the occasional trip on the Capitol Corridor when I need to get to Sacramento, so I get kinda worked up when I see seven figures being squandared on pie-in-the-sky high speed rail projects, while local transit suffers. This is why the LA Bus Riders Union is opposing extension to their Metro. It’s also why the head of the Chinese rail system got the boot; the fares were too high for the workers it was designed to transport.

    But then, capital projects are soooo much sexier; all those photo ops for politicians holding golden shovels and grinning for the camera. As for my last paragraph, well I guess irony is quite lost on you, Mike…

  • After you led with Billions (with a B) then yes, your irony was lost. And there has been someone advocating for ripping up Caltrain and replacing it with BART and bus service, so I’m sorry if I lumped you in with that.

  • patrick carroll

    No worries, Mike. I actually meant to say “millions for studies” or “billions for high speed rail ” and it came out the way it did instead. My bad.

  • The correlation between the wealth generated in Silicon Valley and its CalTrain service is clear … http://felicitycarus.blogspot.com/
    Businesses should be worried about reduced services to their offices…

  • CaltrainHater

    And people wonder why Caltrain is going bankrupt. The management is inept, the CFO Gigi Harrington is a cow that could not manage a child’s savings account. It is all about the good old boy system. Caltrain should go under so a real organization can run it properly. To much fluff at the top who does not know how to work within their own means.

  • CaltrainHater

    Get rid of Caltrain and let BART go down the Pennisula. At least they know how to run a transit district. They have a surplus of money unlike Caltrain. Sometimes you really need to look at the people running the organization. Get rid of them all.

  • CaltrainHater, you are late to the party.

  • At least they know how to run a transit district. They have a surplus of money unlike Caltrain.

    And they are firing their director and paying her 7 figures to leave! Brilliance!