Published Friday, April 2, 2010, by the San Mateo County Times
The only Caltrain savior may be your wallet
By Mike Rosenberg
San Mateo County Times
It may be that only the wallets of drivers, transit riders and noncommuters alike can save Caltrain from drastically cutting its train service or perhaps even folding.
A day after Caltrain unveiled the need to chop $30 million per year from its $97 million annual operating budget, likely requiring them to eliminate all weekend, midday and weeknight trains, officials searched for a savior.
Agency leaders, local politicians and experts agreed: With Caltrain already down to "bone and muscle" -- and nearly all its expenses tied to operating trains -- the only way to balance the budget without shrinking service would be to find new sources of money, namely taxes.
A fare hike would chase away so many riders that Caltrain would be left with the same or even less revenue and, even if all passengers are willing to keep riding, the higher fares would only generate a few million dollars per year, Caltrain officials said.
Caltrain is unlike most major Bay Area transit operators in that it does not have a dedicated source of outside funding, and has two options to get one: new or higher taxes and fees, or government subsidies.
"There's no question that there needs to be a dedicated revenue stream for Caltrain to continue to exist," said Caltrain Vice Chair Mark Church, a San Mateo County supervisor. "We're going to need help from the region to find our way through this problem. That would require a major shift in the attitude, or mood, of the public."
Ideas for increasing regional sales taxes or vehicle license fees have some local leaders contemplating ballot measures or state bills, although without much traction. Some have suggested high-speed rail or other entities may be able to take over Caltrain service, though such ideas have not been studied.
Most have pushed hardest for a gas tax, whereby drivers would pay more at the pump, likely about 5 to 10 cents per gallon, with the proceeds funding transit. It has been billed as a tax to ease congestion and lower emissions, but it has been received so poorly no one has been willing to put such a measure before voters, either Bay Area-wide or locally.
Rod Diridon, the executive director of San Jose State's Mineta Transportation Institute, said their recent polling data indicates a little less than half of local voters would support such a measure. And it would need two-thirds approval.
"I think today, it's not just a political hot potato, it's an economic hot potato," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a former Caltrain board member who has pushed for new Caltrain funding. "The region needs to face up to the fact that (Caltrain) is a regional asset, and it needs to be supported and protected."
But a gas tax in just San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, with all the proceeds benefiting Caltrain, would have little chance of passing, said Diridon, who chaired the committee that launched Caltrain service.
"There's a psychological barrier there that the public just hasn't been able to get through," he said.
Caltrain is far from alone in its fiscal woes. Since January 2009, 59 percent of transit agencies around the nation have cut service or raised fares, and the number rises to 84 percent when including those considering such moves, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
But Caltrain's situation is rare, at least among major Bay Area transit operators, in that it does not have tax revenues. BART, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and SamTrans have half-cent sales taxes, which combined generate $386 million per year. The money typically accounts for one-third to one-half of their respective total revenues.
AC Transit, meanwhile, charges property owners in its district $8 per month, which produces $14 million annually for bus service.
Caltrain, by contrast, rakes in about 40 percent of its money from rider fares -- far more than most -- and does not have any tax revenues.
Even with the tax revenue, though, BART, VTA, SamTrans and Muni have cut service and raised fares in the past year to help balance their budgets.
Their long-term budget gaps, however, are not as dire as Caltrain's, and none have suggested cuts as drastic as what Caltrain has proposed. VTA, for instance, has a balanced budget and does not expect to raise fares or reduce service in the next year, said spokeswoman Brandi Childress.
One other option for Caltrain would be ongoing subsidies, another route unlikely to prove fruitful.
The federal government has given transit billions for job-creating infrastructure projects, most recently through the stimulus package, through it has not and does not plan to provide any help for public transit budgets.
The state government had long provided transit with operating subsidies, including about $10 million per year for Caltrain. But that money was eliminated three years ago as part of the state's budget mess, and few in Sacramento expect it to return anytime soon. A recent gas tax swap in the Legislature did, at least, provide Caltrain with an extra $5 million per year, lowering the deficit from $35 million.
On a regional level, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission doles out infrastructure money and divvies up state and federal dollars, but has not provided help for transit budgets, and has no intention or mechanism to do so.
Locally, with San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties expected to cut back their Caltrain contributions by nearly 70 percent by July 2011, cash-strapped cities could choose to pick up the burden. Caltrain stops in 16 cities from San Francisco to San Jose each weekday and each city would have to pay $1.9 million to bridge the Caltrain budget gap.
Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain goes broke; will likely cut weekend, night, midday trains