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The Green Caltrain blog is sponsored by BayRail Alliance, an all-volunteer non-profit organization supporting green rail transit in the Bay Area. This blog and BayRail have no affiliation with Caltrain.

Save Caltrain FAQ

Here are answers to some common questions ask about Caltrain emergency.

Why is Caltrain running a deficit? Does that mean it’s badly run and deserves to go out of business?

The Caltrain crisis is triggered by a sharp decline in the funding contributed by SamTrans, and not because of a drop in riders or fare revenue. Caltrain has been at record levels.

Caltrain covers about 60% of its operating expenses using fares from riders – the 2nd best rate of any Bay Area transit agency. Its administrative overhead costs, as a percentage of overall costs, are among the lowest of any Bay Area transit agency. By objective financial metrics, Caltrain is run far more efficiently than MUNI, SamTrans or VTA, the three agencies that provide the remainder of Caltrain’s funding.

But other Bay Area transit agencies have dedicated funding. Because Caltrain is the child of a joint powers agreement between public transit entities in San Francisco, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, it has in recent times received approximately 20-30 percent of its revenues from those partners. In contrast, Caltrain must make yearly requests from the three county transit agencies.

How is Caltrain funded, as opposed to agencies like VTA and BART?

Caltrain’s operating subsidy comes from the local transit agencies in the three counties that Caltrain runs through: San Francisco, SamTrans (San Mateo County), and VTA (Santa Clara County). The subsidy is split among the three counties by where the riders board the train in the morning. However, financial trouble at any of the three partners can jeopardize the entire Caltrain service.

VTA and BART collect their own taxes. VTA has several local sales taxes and BART has a 1/2 cent sales tax and a property tax in San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties. SamTrans is funded in part by sales taxes, and AC Transit is funded by parcel taxes in East Bay counties.

So what’s going on at SamTrans?

SamTrans has a structural deficit caused by rising operating cost, lower than expected tax revenue, and significant reductions in state support for transit operation. While SamTrans’ main responsibility is the local bus system, it is also contributing funds to Caltrain and the BART line from Daly City to SFO. Over the years SamTrans cut some of the cost by lowering subsidy to the BART extension (which was picked up by BART). Recently SamTrans has sought to eliminate Caltrain funding (which would not be picked up by any agency).

Until we are able to identify long-term funding, we do not agree that SamTrans should “dump” Caltrain and leave train riders stranded. Like high schools and elementary schools, regional trains and local buses complement each other. The transit system would not function well without one or the other.

If Caltrain were shut down, would anyone notice?

If Caltrain were shut down, it would take the equivalent of 2-3 extra lanes on Highway 101 to carry the extra rush hour traffic. It would also greatly increase parking demand in Downtown San Francisco, Stanford University, and at AT&T Park. Additional traffic to and from the parking lots would also tie up local streets.

Caltrain ridership is smaller than freeways, but the impact on traffic is substantial. As traffic volume on a freeway rises to near peak capacity it only takes a small disturbance to create a major delay. Likewise, removing a few percent of cars from the freeways makes a big difference in flow and causes a disproportionate reduction in delays.

The details: 80% of the ~40,000 daily trips are made during the peak hours (6-9AM and 4-7PM), which equates to ~5300 passengers per hour. A freeway lane can carry about 1500 vehicles per hour. So Caltrain today is equivalent to 3 freeway lanes with an average vehicle occupancy of 1.2. It could easily double that if the proper capital improvements are made.

Shouldn’t Caltrain pay for itself like a business?

None of our transportation systems (rail, car, truck, air, boat) pay for themselves entirely through user fees. We all support them through the use of general funds because they provide a general benefit that is considered worthwhile to society as a whole.

The train benefits everyone, even those who drive. Without Caltrain, the roads and parking lots will be more crowded, increase everyone’s commute time even further. Without Caltrain, people would have one less safe mean to get home while intoxicated, putting lives at risk.

Can’t we just close down Caltrain and run BART instead?

To build BART in place of Caltrain, would be a $10 Billion project to close a $30 Million deficit. It doesn’t make any financial sense. The additional funding required to build and operate BART is much larger than what is needed to keep Caltrain going.

There’s a lot that we can do to integrate and coordinate transit without tearing down and replacing the things we have. Many cities in the United States and around the world have rail lines that aren’t physically compatible (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, to name a few), but are integrated in terms of schedules and fares. We do not see BART replacement as a serious solution, rather as a distraction to real solutions that keep and improve our transit service.

Can we save money by cutting Caltrain north of Millbrae? People can just transfer to BART.

San Francisco 4th & King station has consistently had the highest ridership on the entire Caltrain system, even after the BART extension opened in 2003. The 4th & King Station is a key origin and destination for Caltrain’s most profitable customers who ride the Baby Bullet express trains, and is far busier today than it was 8 years ago. Cutting off 4th & King would cut off the healthiest part of Caltrain’s fare revenue; instead of saving money, it would further degrade Caltrain’s finances and hasten the “death spiral” of reduced ridership and service.

Caltrain takes 18 minutes to travel the direct route from Millbrae to 4th & King. BART takes a full half hour to go the same distance, not counting the extra time to switch trains, because of the circuitous detour around San Bruno Mountain. Slower service would further depress Caltrain ridership and revenue.

The 4th & King Station is only a block away from AT & T Park. Cutting service north of Millbrae would mean no direct access to this venue. Riders on BART have to walk a mile to the ballpark or take the crowded MUNI.

The Millbrae Station doesn’t have the tracks and service facilities to turn trains around on a regular basis. Overall, Caltrain could lose more riders and fare revenue by terminating trains at Millbrae than keep running trains all the way to San Francisco.

Finally, unlike BART, Caltrain can carry bicycles onboard on all trains at all times. Cutting service north of Millbrae would mean that passengers heading to San Francisco in the morning would not be allowed to take their bikes.

What is the impact on the personal finances of riders?

Commuters’ wallets would get hit if they needed to drive instead of taking the train. A train trip from Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco only costs a little more than $3 using a discounted monthly pass, while driving a car that distance costs $13.50, when insurance, depreciation and maintenance expenses are included.

What solutions are being considered to provide stable funding for Caltrain

Possible funding solutions include gas tax, sales tax, payroll tax, tolls from congestion pricing, and tolls from high occupancy toll lanes.

Sales tax. One option is an 1/8 cent sales tax in all 3 counties that use Caltrain.  Another option is a sales tax in San Mateo County only, since SamTrans is currently the agency with the deepest financial problems.

Gas tax. With a 1 cent increase in the gas tax, the 1.3 billion gallons of gas sold every year in the three counties served by Caltrain alone would bring in $13 million, almost half of the current deficit.

Payroll tax. A Tri-county payroll tax of just $20 per year could bring in $35 million, well over this year’s entire deficit.

Other solutions including high-occupancy toll lanes, bridge tolls, and congestion pricing.

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