Caltrain’s board of directors voted unanimously this week to declare a fiscal emergency, paving the way for a far-reaching array of cuts to help bridge a projected $30 million budget gap.
The vote came Thursday after more than two hours of testimonials from riders concerned about losing Caltrain service. Their voices joined the 1,350 written comments the board has received during the four community meetings that have taken place across the Peninsula in the last month, according to Caltrain Executive Director Michael J. Scanlon.
While nothing is certain until the board votes on next year’s budget in April, declaring a fiscal emergency allows Caltrain to bypass the state-mandated environmental review required before making changes to its service, said spokeswoman Christine Dunn.
“If we had to do it, we’d be bankrupt by then,” she said.
Those cuts include nearly halving the number of daily trains and eliminating both weekend service and all service south of San Jose.
Even with these measures, Caltrain would still be $5 million short of breaking even, said Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain’s director of transportation.
Unlike other agencies that have allotted revenue through taxes, more than half of Caltrain’s funding comes from its three partner agencies—Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), SamTrans and the county of San Francisco—which make up the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. Payment from each agency is typically proportional to the amount of riders within that county, Dunn said.
The remaining portion of Caltrain's revenue comes from ticket sales, according to Thursday's presentation.
However, the economic downturn that has hit the coffers of most county governments has forced the three partners to reduce their contributions over the past few years.
If the other agencies follow suit, Caltrain’s available funding for the coming fiscal year would drop from $35 million to $11 million.
VTA General Manager Michael T. Burns announced in a letter last month that his Santa Clara County agency would not cut its contribution. Some have suggested that the agency provide an additional one-time contribution to help cover SamTrans, but not everyone agrees that it would be fair to the Santa Clara County taxpayers who pay for VTA.
Concerns expressed at Thursday's meeting were plentiful: Some people said they had chosen their homes based on a nearby station now in jeopardy. Some were students, some disabled, and some were simply longtime fans.
“I have been riding the train for over 80 years,” said Pat Dixon, who recalled when the system was owned by Union Pacific. “I hate to see any trains cut.”
The largest contingent at the meeting was a group representing San Jose's private boys high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory. More than 240 of the students commute by train every day, nearly half of them from south of San Jose, according to Brian Adams, a school vice president.
The College Park station, a short walk from Bellarmine, is one of the stations being considered for the cut. The others are Bayshore, South San Francisco, San Bruno, Burlingame, Hayward Park, Belmont, San Antonio, Lawrence and Santa Clara.
Bouchard said the agency took a pragmatic approach in considering what stations to cut. Each trip could only last 70 minutes, stopping at the most popular stations during peak hours.
Bruce Shelton, who listened to the three-hour meeting, said he knows many riders on a first-name basis. He has been a Caltrain conductor for 14 years.
“It’s the only agency, hard as this is to believe, in the nine-county Bay Area without dedicated funding,” Shelton said, “They’ve managed to cobble together the funds to keep us going in the past, but those days are behind us.”
In January, Scanlon said, ridership and revenue were actually higher than expected.
The Caltrain board will meet again April 7 to vote on the proposed changes.