Caltrain considers major reductions 

Facing a budget deficit that could swell to $30 million, Caltrain is considering massive service reductions, including the “likely” scenario of eliminating trains during weekday afternoons and evenings and on weekends.

The worst-case scenario would be to shut down Caltrain entirely, officials said.

The agency has been hurt by a trio of problems: reductions in state funding, dwindling ridership and lower-than-expected contributions from local transit agencies that help subsidize its operations.

In the past three years, Caltrain, which has a $97 million annual budget, has lost $10 million in state funding each year. Ridership, which produces 40 percent of revenue, has dipped by 8.3 percent this year.

Facing budget problems of their own, SamTrans, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Valley Transportation Authority — the trio of transit agencies that contribute to Caltrain — are expected to greatly scale back their subsidies to the commuter rail, which typically amount to $40 million.

Those three factors could leave Caltrain tens of millions of dollars in the hole, spokeswoman Tasha Bartholemew said.

To deal with the financial crisis, the agency is considering ending midday service and evening service, leaving only the commute times, Bartholemew said. She said Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon expressed the seriousness of the situation to the board at Thursday’s meeting. Bartholemew said Scanlon did not rule out the possibility of Caltrain shuttering, if its financial situation continues to deteriorate.

“[Shutting down] is the worst-case scenario, but hopefully we don’t get to that point,” she said.

Caltrain board Chairman and San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said that though the cuts have not been officially proposed, the situation is clearly dire.

“Caltrain has laid out the future, and it’s not good,” he said.

Commuter Chander Narayanan, who travels daily from Sunnyvale to San Francisco, said the cuts would dramatically affect him, forcing him to work from home part of each day.

“Absolutely it affects me,” Narayanan said. “If anything, we need more service. A lot of talent lives in the South Bay and comes up here to work and supports the economy, so it feels like it’s short-term thinking. We should be pressuring more people to use public transportation.”

Rod Diridon Sr., California High-Speed Rail Authority board member and director of San Jose’s Mineta Transportation Institute, said the solution is to find Caltrain a permanent, dedicated funding source. He said Caltrain is the only transit agency in the state that lacks those dedicated funds.

If Caltrain were to fold entirely, it would not be good news for the state’s planned high-speed rail, which would get passengers from the local system, Diridon said.

“The financial and operational health of Caltrain has serious impact on the high-speed rail project,” he said.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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