Commuters confront possible future without Caltrain 

This month, Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon painted a sobering picture of the future of his transit agency.

Huge budget deficits, a struggling economy and dwindling ridership were forcing the agency to reduce service by 50 percent — and contemplate whether Caltrain could survive in the future under its current financial model.

Founded in 1987, Caltrain depends on sales tax receipts, ridership fares and subsidies from local transit agencies — a formula that has been battered during the latest economic downturn.

“The agency’s operations are simply not viable based on our current funding mechanisms,” said Christine Dunn, spokeswoman for Caltrain.

A three-county regional service that carried 38,000 riders at its peak, the elimination of Caltrain could result in major repercussions for commuters on the Peninsula, including increased congestion on already-crowded freeways and more strain on fellow struggling transit agencies.

According to the latest Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute, the highways and thoroughfares of the Bay Area are the fifth-most congested in the country, with each commuter losing an average of 55 hours a year while stuck in traffic.

Assuming Caltrain folded and half its 38,000 passengers drove to work during the three hours of peak commute time, the additional cars on U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate 280 would require an extra 2½ lanes just for traffic to remain at its current, sluggish levels, according to Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

“The level of passengers on Caltrain is not a trivial number,” Deakin said. “There is not the additional capacity available on the highways leading into San Francisco. We would certainly see an already-congested area get worse.”

In addition to the harmful emissions that would result from increased car commuters, making the drive from the Peninsula would be a taxing effort for motorists. At $3.18 a gallon, the price of gasoline in San Francisco is at least 30 cents more than the national average.

Also, under a proposal being mulled over by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, discounted parking rates at downtown garages could be eliminated, forcing motorists to pay costly hourly fees.

Deakin said that, realistically, adding 19,000 new cars to thoroughfares on the Peninsula is not a very plausible scenario, leaving many former Caltrain commuters to seek out options on other transit agencies.

However, like Caltrain, other operators are struggling to maintain current service standards, making it unlikely they would be able to expand scheduling and routes to accommodate thousands of extra passengers.

BART maintains five stations on the Peninsula and, while the transit agency could deal with a small influx of additional riders, agency spokesman Linton Johnson said he doubts “we could handle anywhere close to the full 38,000 people,” if Caltrain shut down.

SamTrans, which is under the same management as Caltrain, offers five bus lines carrying commuters from the Peninsula to The City. However, those lines currently carry only a combined total of just more than 22,000 people each day.

If only half of Caltrain’s existing passengers used SamTrans, it would constitute nearly a doubling of the bus system’s riders, putting further strain on the agency, which recently cut service by 7.5 percent because of budget problems.

“It would simply be unreasonable for buses to accommodate the Caltrain load,” said Dunn, who is a spokeswoman for SamTrans and Caltrain.

Michael Cunningham, transportation analyst at the Bay Area Council, a regional public advocacy organization, said the loss of Caltrain could play a major role in local businesses recruiting highly skilled employees.

“The Bay Area is home to thousands of highly trained, knowledgeable workers who come to the region because it’s the best place to live,” Cunningham said. “If you’re looking at a future where it takes an hour and a half to work, will that be motivation to drive these workers elsewhere? Caltrain plays an essential part of the transportation mix here.”

If Caltrain is forced to fold, congestion and overcrowded transit systems are likely to get worse over time. The Bay Area is expected to grow by 2 million people over the next 25 years, and during that same time span, Caltrain anticipates its average weekday ridership to double to 72,000 passengers.

“If Caltrain closed, it looks like people would have two pretty undesirable options,” Deakin said. “Sit in their car on a congested highway, or cram into an overcrowded bus.”

Avoiding these nightmarish scenarios will not be simple. Caltrain needs a dedicated funding source to manage its operations or else it will constantly battle gaping budget deficits, Dunn said.

“We don’t know where our people will go without Caltrain,” Dunn said. “But our hands are pretty much tied without a new funding plan.”

With financial future cloudy, Caltrain pins its high hopes on high-speed rail

Faced with a financial model that leaves it constantly dealing with overwhelming budget deficits, Caltrain is pinning its future on the success of statewide high-speed rail.

Because it will share a trackway with the proposed high-speed rail route, Caltrain is in line to see millions of dollars in federal funding for a much-needed project to electrify its tracks.

As much as $516 million in funds related to the high-speed rail project could be delivered to Caltrain for its $1.2 billion electrification project, which will provide the agency with faster service, environmentally cleaner vehicles and more capacity for its passengers.

In the works for more than a decade, electrification has been a central focus of Caltrain, which believes the project will make the agency more self-sustainable and efficient. This month, the agency passed a major milestone when its board of directors certified an environmental impact report on the electrification process, a procedural move that allowed it to formally seek funding.

A big hurdle was also cleared when the California High-Speed Rail Authority reaffirmed its position to run its trains through the Peninsula on the Caltrain corridor.

As long as high-speed rail — and the funding opportunities it brings — continues to move forward, Caltrain’s future looks less-tenuous. If the high-speed rail project falters — and there are still plenty of roadblocks in the way of the massive project — Caltrain’s outlook is grim.

“Without high-speed rail, the survival of Caltrain is dubious at best,” said Caltrain board member Omar Ahmad.

— Will Reisman

Hitting the tracks

Caltrain’s annual weekday ridership numbers:

2010: 35,041

2009: 39,122

2008: 36,993

2007: 33,841

2006: 32,031

2005: 28,393

2004: 25,550

$8.50 Round-trip cost from Redwood City and north to San Francisco

25 cents Cost of fare increase enacted in January 2009

Source: Caltrain

Cost of commuting

$3.18 Average cost of a gallon of gasoline in San Francisco

$2.82 Average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the nation

Source: AAA

Peninsula commuting

Statistics on the various forms of getting around in San Mateo County:

1.9 million Daily vehicle trips into San Francisco

5 SamTrans lines with service to San Francisco

22,433 Average weekday ridership of those SamTrans lines

6 BART stations in San Mateo County

20,801 Average weekday exits at those BART stations

Source: SamTrans, San Francisco County Transportation Authority

Bay Area congestion

Key figures regarding commuting in the Bay Area:

55 Hours lost each year in traffic per commuter

40 Gallons of fuel wasted each year in traffic per commuter

5th San Francisco’s rank among worst-congested large urban areas

Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Study

About The Author

Will Reisman

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