Should SamTrans run Caltrain? Key contract requirement has expired

The SamTrans board is starting the process to appoint the new CEO for SamTrans and Caltrain. However, the provision requiring SamTrans to run Caltrain has a time condition which has expired.  Should SamTrans continue to run Caltrain, given transportation needs nearly 20 years after the current structure was created?

SamTrans’ responsibility to run Caltrain is granted according to a provision in the  Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Agreement that was signed in 1996, creating Caltrain in its current form, following San Mateo County’s purchase of the right of way (ROW) from the state.  The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB) was created to govern Caltrain, and SamTrans was designated as the agency that would manage the Caltrain service.

The JPA states in section 6B, “SamTrans hereby is appointed as Managing Agency for the duration of the term, provided, however, that the JPB may replace SamTrans as the Managing Agency upon one (1) year’s prior written notice given at the end of any fiscal year after SamTrans has been fully repaid monies advanced by it to cover the ROW purchase price.”

As part of the temporary resolution to Caltrain’s 2011 fiscal crisis brokered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties finally paid back their portion of the right of way purchase.  So, with one year’s written notice, the Caltrain board now has the right to swap out SamTrans as the managing agency, in which case Caltrain and SamTrans would need different leadership.

Meanwhile, content in SamTrans’ strategic plan suggests that the agency might not mind being rid of its Caltrain obligations.  On page 9 of the Draft Strategic Plan, SamTrans takes credit for reducing its contribution to Caltrain by $39,400,000 between 2009 and 2014.

Conditions have changed substantially since San Mateo County rescued the Peninsula Corridor rail line.   Facing declining ridership Southern Pacific once considered replacing the ailing rail service with vanpool shuttles.

southernpacificvanpools

When SamTrans took over the rail service, average weekday ridership was 64,000, and Caltrain ridership was only 26,000.  Today, Caltrain’s average weekday ridership is about 60,000, and SamTrans average weekday ridership has declined to about 40,000.

Caltrain is in the process of a major electrification project which will help it carry more riders.  Given ridership increases, Caltrain needs to do capacity planning and implement incremental improvements to be able to keep up with demand. Over the next decade, Caltrain will have increasing demands to provide integrated service with BART, when BART connects to Caltrain at Diridon station in San Jose, and with High Speed Rail, when the services connect at Diridon and Transbay.

Leading Caltrain through the upcoming transition period will be a big job, and a different job from the priorities of SamTrans.   Should the agencies continue to be coupled?  Should the same executive be responsible for managing both services?