Caltrain Board Approves Controversial Full Service Budget Plan

Caltrain may have averted a disaster of year-long service cuts. The Caltrain Joint Powers Board voted 5-3 today to approve a budget plan that would retain all of the system’s service for the coming fiscal year, granted partnering agencies vote to increase their annual funding contributions.

Flickr photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/sp8254/2612668314/sizes/z/in/photostream/##SP8254 - Catching Up##

Board members and advocates praised the plan, which would spare riders from proposed station closures and minimal service limited to peak hours. Still, three board members took the unpopular vote to cut nearly half the trains, deriding the full-service plan as unrealistic and short-sighted.

“This is not a solution, this is a one-time spending plan,” said San Mateo County representative Omar Ahmad, who proposed a failed amendment that would’ve reduced service to 48 trains instead of the full 86. “Deferring preventative maintenance is not kicking the can down the road, it’s kicking it into the ditch…We didn’t dodge a bullet, we took this one straight in the chest.”

The budget plan keeps Caltrain afloat with increased funding contributions from member agencies as well as solutions like a 25-cent fare hike, a $1 increase in daily parking fees, $1.5 million from the maintenance budget, and a requested $3.5 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

San Francisco representatives Jose Cisneros and Sean Elsbernd voted for Ahmad’s amendment, which would’ve minimized funding contributions from the ailing local transit agencies. SFMTA Executive Director/CEO Nat Ford was not present, opting to attend the launch of SFPark at San Francisco City Hall.

“It’s a dream scenario,” said Elsbernd. “I can absolutely guarantee you, with the budget we’re about to adopt, we’ll be back here in January, February, declaring a fiscal emergency.”

Caltrain has declared fiscal emergencies for the last three years to fix its chronically ailing budget, but San Mateo representative Adrienne Tissier, the 86-train budget’s main proponent, remained optimistic about attaining long-term funding solutions.

“We’ve got the momentum,” said Tissier, who urged the adoption of a two-year plan to find permanent funding such as a voter-approved tax. “There’s not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – at the end of two years, we could go off a cliff. But the outcry from the public is they’re willing to step in and help find long-term solutions.”

But there’s too much risk in relying on a two-thirds vote to approve a tax measure, said Ahmad. “Getting a [dedicated] revenue source is going to be an extremely heavy lift. If that doesn’t happen, is the expectation that Caltrain will take several more months, wring its hands, and dance for rain?”

“I don’t think we can do that.”

  • Andy Chow

    Ahmad’s proposed amendment is to recognize that Caltrain can only afford 48 trains if no long term solution is found in the future. Other members voted down the amendment basically it would amount to a pre-approval of the 48 trains service that nobody likes.

  • While I understand where Ahmad is coming from, I think he was also being disingenuous, as were the 2 SF reps who supported him. Sure, 48 trains is all Caltrain can afford IF SAMTRANS IS UNABLE/UNWILLING to meet its formula contribution of $14 M, which is reduced to 10.6M for this budget. Per the PPT presented today, a 48-train schedule calls for $4.8 M from Samtrans – representing San Mateo county where the plurality of morning commuters hail. Caltrain’s problems are based on Samtrans problems, and Ahmad was just acting on Samtrans’ behalf. Meanwhile, my sources tell me that Samtrans will be paying the BART bondholders $12.5 M this yeart, and every years for the next 25 years, as a result of an agreement to finance the BART-SFO extension.

    This doesn’t explain why the 2 SF directors supported the 48-train acknowledgement as the ‘sustainable basis for Caltrain’ unless they also wanted to see a lower SF contribution – but the reduction is a mere $2.5 million – SF can and should a minimum $4.5M for a 78-train schedule.

  • jd

    This is good news. But clearly, in the long-term, it is critical that Caltrain get permanent funding via some sort of tax increase. I hope they are working on this for 2012.

  • Jm

    Taxed enough.. Find savings from wasted money..

  • mikesonn

    Jm, care to expand? Or just want to toss in some TeaParty logic?

    jd is right. The wake up call has been the last 3 years when they voted on a fiscal emergency after fiscal emergency. When does it no longer become an emergency and just the norm? Caltrain is crucial to the economic vitality of the Peninsula (along with a huge boon for the ever shifting downtown core of SF, the Giants, and SJ’s growing trend towards TOD).

    I’d really like to see some leadership from the board and some state representatives. The GOP’s 2/3s BS for tax increases will make it difficult, but Caltrain needs dedicated funding and it needs to be on a ballot sooner than later.

  • mikesonn

    Caltrain could also go about getting its Clipper house in order.

    I have a zones 1-2 monthly pass. Yesterday, I had to board in Palo Alto, got there with just enough time to tag on and not enough time to get a zone upgrade. So I tag off in SF and see that I have been charge $6.50 which is the full zone 1-3 fare. Why in the world is it so hard to compute that I have a zone 1-2 pass and only need a zone upgrade? I’m sure it is just ignorance, but sure reeks of malpractice.

    I’m a dedicated Caltrain rider, so I’ll roll with the punches. But if I were a casual commuter and I was getting had like this, I’d say screw it and drive. Is the extra $4.50 worth the loss of good will?

  • Mike – yes, Clipper ‘doesn’t do upgrades’ – that’s just the way it is for now. Make sure to get your one-zone, $2 upgrade prior to boarding. I asked about that ability early on and I was told by Clipper reps that was the case.
    However, what bothers me is that ‘casual commuters’ aren’t using Clipper – I wish they would, esp. when they have to transfer. I often disembark at Millbrae in the AM and see queues of folks lining up to buy BART tix after detraining – had they purchased a Clipper and used it, there would be no need to buy BART tix!!!

  • mikesonn

    Getting on BART is probably one of the biggest time savers using Clipper. My wife still hasn’t put cash on her card (she has her Muni monthly on it) and I’ve been pushing her towards it just because you don’t have to wait in those lines or worry about entering the right amount of cash on your, etc.

    Irvin, did they give you a reason as to why? Or was it “that’s just the way it is”. Seems like it would really simple to fix: Does user have monthly pass? (Y/N) Did travel include zones from monthly pass? (Y/N) If yes, add number of zone upgrades needed.

    But sorry, this isn’t a Clipper discussion. Though I do believe the easier the system is to use the more people will use it. So I guess it all relates.

  • Anonymous

    in reply to Mike, who asked about Clipper’s lack of upgrade capacity: “Irvin, did they give you a reason as to why? Or was it “that’s just the way it is ‘it is’ “?
    Yes, it’s ‘just the way it is’. Clipper’s got lots of inabilities; I call it ‘first generation smart card’, which actually makes it pretty ‘dumb’, so I think ‘forgiving’ is what is called for. I just wish more casual transit users would get a free Clipper and put a few bucks on it – this was done for their purpose, not the regular user who got by pretty much OK with paper passes. Ironic that casual users seem to be the least likely to use them when it was done for their benefit.

    But back to the real discussion – retaining the 86 trains for FY 2012, and the dissension on the board as to whether to acknowledge, in their resolution, that ’48 trains is the sustainable schedule’. [The Streetsblog article in not accurate, IMO, in stating, ” Still, three board members took the unpopular vote to cut nearly half the trains, deriding the full-service plan as unrealistic and short-sighted.”] Rather, Amad, Cisneros, and Elsbernd opposed Tissier’s resolution to support a modified staff recommendation because Ahmad’s amendment to acknowledge the 48 base train schedule was not included. If Ford was present, the vote to pass the resolution would have been 5-4!!!

    The APTA rep’ in the Mercury today explains one important aspect of the chronic problem well:
    “Without dedicated funds, it’s a distraction from running the system because management devotes so much attention to the problem,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association.
    “It’s a roller-coaster ride every year. If you know how much money is coming in, it is so much easier to make contracts and to put together a budget,” he added.

    However, what’s not mentioned is that the real problem Caltrain faces now is SamTran’s inability to meet its formula contribution, and that’s the heart of the issue and the so-called 48-train base schedule.

  • jd

    Jm,

    What is your baseline for deciding you/we are taxed enough? Is it all other developed countries? If so, just about all of them having a higher tax burden than we in the US do:
    http://www.forbes.com/global/2008/0407/060_3.html

    *and* they do not have to support a military whose budget exceeds that of almost all other countries *combined*:
    http://m2.wnymedia.net/files/2011/04/country-distribution-2009.png

    That is insane even if we didn’t have a military whose expense ate up 20% of our federal budget.

    We as a country are living by putting everything on a “credit card” (ie, or debt … but is that really surprising given that that is what people do as individuals too?). Obviously, to balance our budget, we can cut spending our increase revenue. But the fact that almost every other country has discovered that you need to tax more to get the things you want (like great public transportation) lends powerful credence to the argument that we should be increasing taxes. We can’t have it both ways: we can’t have great schools, health care, social security, public transit, livable cities, national parks, governing agencies like the FDA, OSHA, EPA, FAA, etc and not pay for it. If we want these things (and I believe all reasonable people do), then we need to realize that it will cost much more in taxes. And after all, what are you afraid of? So you pay low taxes now and “save” your money, only to have to save literally $1 million (or more) just to be able to provide for yourself after you retire. And meanwhile our schools, public transit, etc is collapsing.

    Getting back to the issue at hand, we subsidize our inefficient automobile industry without blinking, and then when people want to subsidize a much more efficient and health form of transit (like Caltrain), people balk and claim that their taxes are already too “high” (which, as I’ve shown above, is BS … unless you are comparing to some mythological place). We can’t even have the real debate in this country, which is: how much should we be increasing taxes (and how much for each income bracket)? Instead, we (especially the conservative Right) stand around yelling at each other like children throwing out meaningless words like “socialism” and holding on to completely meaningless mantras like “we are already taxed enough” or “government is too big”, instead of being open-minded and thinking *long-term* about how we want to live sustainably, both economically and environmentally/health-wise.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    … [Clipper] was done for [casual riders’] purpose, not the regular user who got by pretty much OK with paper passes …

    Uh no.

    Clipper was done solely for the benefit of the (predetermined) contractor mafia.

    “Smart” cards and fare gates and non-stop software “upgrades” = great business for defense contractor Cubic. Hundreds of millions of your tax dollars sucked down, with no end in sight. Pretty hot for a casual encounter!

  • Anonymous

    The only patently sustainable schedule is zero trains. As a society we have decided to use some tax to run trains. The job of the JPB and Caltrain is to provide useful service and get society a good return on investment. A 48 train schedule is useless. If board members are not “all-in” to retain nights, midday, weekend – why did they accept this appointment? Ahmad seemed to take some issue as to if it is the JPB’s job to find funding – then whose job is it? If it’s the Caltrain staff’s job and they aren’t delivering, then it’s JPB’s job to fire them.

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