Dissecting anti-Caltrain arguments

When the news about Caltrain funding broke last week, some people thought that Caltrain should be blamed for its financial situation. Nothing is further from the truth. Let’s dissect some of the anti-Caltrain arguments.

Comment: Caltrain lost riders because its service is already too weak.

That’s not true. First, transit ridership has gone down pretty much everywhere throughout the country because of reduction in service and increased unemployment. Overall, Caltrain ridership is still significantly higher before the Baby Bullet was implemented in 2004. This February, Caltrain ridership has declined 2% from the same month last year. In February 2009, ridership was 0.4% higher than the previous year. Before that, Caltrain enjoyed double digit ridership increases for a few years.

The Baby Bullet increased fare revenue significantly, which help stabilized Caltrain’s finances. However like nearly all transit systems in this country, it needs public funding to continue operation.

Comment: How about looking at yourself and figuring out how to create a service that will attract customers and have a service that makes people want to ride your trains?

That’s what the Baby Bullet has done for Caltrain since it was introduced in 2004. However given the current infrastructure, Caltrain is pretty much maxed out in terms of improving service and attracting more riders. That’s why BayRail Alliance has been advocating projects like electrification because electric trains can run faster and make more stops.

Comment: Someone should look into BART taking over the Caltrain tracks.

No thank you. Caltrain is doing just fine if the funding is available. Currently, Caltrain and SamTrans share the same administrative staff. The same customer service representatives, human resources staff, etc work for both SamTrans and Caltrain. Only the operating and maintenance employees are separated. By operating this way, both agencies have a lower overhead and run more efficiently.

Comment: Lets be done with it and make BART circle the SF Bay.

The fact is that there’s still not enough funding for transit operation on the Peninsula. No matter what type of trains you run.

Like Caltrain, BART requires tax subsidy for operation. The reason you don’t see BART having the same financial situation as Caltrain is because BART collects sales taxes in San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties for rail operations. Caltrain does not directly collect sales taxes. Rather the three local transit agencies (which have their own sale taxes) provide operating subsidy to Caltrain based on consensus.

When BART was built in the 1960s, the original bond approved by voters were found to be insufficient to complete the system. The state legislature later imposed a 1/2 percent sales tax on those three counties to complete construction. Once the system was completed, BART kept the sales tax to fund its operation (some of those tax dollars also fund Muni and AC Transit). Because of that sales tax, BART was able to build a reserve and use some of the funding to expand the system. On the other hand, Caltrain has been low on operating reserves for many years.

Yeah, BART could go around the Bay, but will not do it with the funding that Caltrain currently receives. Of course, that has been a bad idea because of its unique track gauge, which requires all the investments made to Caltrain over the years to be removed. Also, what about AT&T Park and the South of Market area?