Caltrain moves an average of 44,000 passengers per weekday up and down the San Francisco Peninsula. It is also an extremely efficient form of transit, covering 44 percent of its costs through fares, a higher percentage than any other Bay Area transit operation except for BART. Administrative costs for Caltrain are among the lowest of local transit agencies. More importantly, Caltrain alleviates the need for 2.5 lanes of traffic on local highways and requires roughly half as much fuel per passenger-mile as automobiles.
Despite its importance and success, Caltrain is in trouble. Due to a lack of dedicated funding, the commuter rail line is facing the possibility of a $30 million budget gap. Caltrain’s proposed solution would eliminate all weekend and non-rush hour service, as well as up to 16 stations. Instead of watching one of the Peninsula’s most important public institutions flounder, local governments, citizens and students must work together to ensure that Caltrain receives the level of funding and respect it deserves.
Unlike other public transportation systems, Caltrain is not funded by a dedicated source such as a sales or gas tax. In place of such a source, Caltrain receives 34 percent of its funding from three other agencies: the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Mateo County Transit District and City and County of San Francisco. This year, however, the agencies are expected to reduce their contributions by approximately $10 million each in order to cover their own financial obligations, leading to the $30 million deficit.
There are many responsible ways to approach this problem, but none of them involve large cuts in service. Elimination of weekend service alone would force roughly 18,000 passengers to seek new transportation options. The proposed cuts would make getting to and from San Francisco International Airport via train impossible during afternoons, evenings and weekends. Stanford students who rely on Caltrain to access the airport, as well as the city of San Francisco, would have to buy or borrow cars. Baseball fans also have reason to worry. Without nighttime service, 417,000 passengers per season would have to find alternate transportation to San Francisco Giants games.
The VTA has proposed several alternatives including selling some of Caltrain’s less active stations and using money set aside for the inactive Dumbarton Rail project. The VTA has also offered to pay back a $7.4 million loan from Caltrain. Taken together, these proposals might be able to delay the most drastic service cuts, but they are not a long-term solution. What Caltrain needs is stable, dedicated funding that is not conditional on the goodwill and solvency of other agencies.
A dedicated source of funding for Caltrain is not just a way out of this year’s budget crisis. By reducing the variability of its revenues, Caltrain will be able to plan and make year-to-year investments without worrying about large deficits that do not result from changes in its revenues or expenditures. Of course, nothing in life is free, so where should this money come from?
Paired with modest reductions in weekend service, a broad-based tax to meet Caltrain’s budgetary requirements wouldn’t need to be large. Local governments should explore funding Caltrain with a one-half to one-cent gas tax, which would have the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Congestion and carbon emissions both impose huge externalities on society. During rush hour in urban areas, an additional car trip can cost up to $200 in other drivers’ wasted time. Climate change resulting from carbon emissions will likely cost trillions of dollars over the next century. Pricing these ills would be a good idea even if Caltrain were not desperate for money.
Stanford University and the Bay Area that surrounds it can rightly claim to be wonderful places to live. Part of what makes them great is quick train service between San Francisco and San Jose, and a regrettable aspect of life here is traffic congestion on the freeways. Keeping Caltrain service robust should be one of the top priorities for local officials.