Friends of Caltrain survey respondents support Caltrain governance regional options

The vast majority of respondents to a Friends of Caltrain survey support regional options for Caltrain governance, in order to position Caltrain to achieve the business plan service vision to greatly increase ridership by providing more frequent, all-day service that is well-connected to local and regional transit, serving a greater diversity of trips and riders.

Respondents to the survey (and also in a twitter conversation) shared a variety of hopes and fears regarding various regional options.

The survey asked about the 7 options that were mentioned to the Caltrain board at its governance workshop on March 19. At that workshop, the Caltrain board expressed an interest in considering a variety regional options as part of the governance process in 2021.

In the Friends of Caltrain survey, 90% percent supported the idea of coordination with a regional transit network manager, with 70% giving an enthusiastic yes to the idea.  A regional network manager would have responsibility to coordinate fares, schedules and branding for the region, and could be pursued instead of or in addition to agency mergers.

Also 88% favored folding Caltrain into a “regional rail transit agency” (we used the wording on the Caltrain board slides), 67% favored combining with the other conventional rail services (ACE, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin), and 56% favored combining with BART.

Interestingly, 53% also favored consolidating Caltrain as part of a statewide system with high speed rail.

There was also strong support among survey for participation in regional initiatives for capital project delivery and/or grade separations, with over 70% support for each of those options.

Hopes and concerns

Respondents to the survey, and in an earlier twitter conversation shared their hopes and concerns about the regional governance options. People shared a variety of hopes for a more integrated system with coordinated service and more cost-effective capital projects. Others raised concerns about a risk of diverted funds and reduced service, and about the potential inefficiency of a larger organization.   

Regarding hopes for regional governance options, several respondents mentioned eagerness to see Caltrain fulfill its business plan goals of more  rapid-transit style service with all-day, all-week frequency, with a longer span of service to support many more kinds of trips.  These respondents thought that a Caltrain-BART combination would be a good fit because electric Caltrain service will become more similar to BART.

People were eager to see seamlessly integrated fares and schedules, with better transfers at hub stations, including better connections with local bus and light rail service, and other last mile options.   These improvements would help the Bay Area become a more interconnected region, would help many more people get around without driving, and would provide more equitable access to mobility.

A number of respondents hoped that regional governance options would help achieve denser development around stations, and with more lively station areas with retail and services.

And a number of respondents hoped that regional governance options would bring about more integrated capital planning and cost-effective construction in line with international best practices.  And a few mentioned opportunities for lower administrative costs.

Respondents also raised concerns about risks of regional governance options.

Overall, several readers mentioned concerns that regional governance options might lead to more bureaucracy and increased costs without improvements in service.

A number of respondents had particular concerns about the BART combination option.  One commenter phrased this concern as “Organizational dynamics suggest that Caltrain would be the poor step-child of BART.”

Some of the BART skeptics were worried that combining Caltrain with BART could result in BART diverting money from Measure RR, which was just passed to fund Caltrain service; and would result in reductions of service along the Caltrain line. These skeptics worried that BART’s post pandemic financial woes could be a drag on Caltrain service. Several skeptics raised concerns about BART’s management, and issues with cleanliness and policing. Others noted a history of BART extensions that have not been cost-effective.

Some skeptics of regional coordination saw merger as a step down – “it seems like Caltrain has been doing a good job, so being dissolved is an odd reward.” (This is in contrast to the regionalization optimists, who saw that Caltrain has some goals for coordinated service that can’t be achieved alone)

A few respondents supported improved regional coordination but wanted to maintain Caltrain as a standalone agency while coordinating service and fares.

One reader wanted to make sure than any regional governance option made sure to protect funding and service for SFMTA which is the agency with the highest ridership in the region.

A number of commenters had questions and concerns about board structure. Several wanted to make sure that all geographies are represented on the combined agency board. Currently BART operates in 5 counties but has board representation only in three counties. Some wanted to see directly elected leaders, or wanted to see leaders more informed about transit than commonly found among city council members appointed to transit agency boards; some were concerned about the potential for bad faith politics with any move toward regionalization.

Respondent demographics

The respondents were split across the three Caltrain counties, with 22 from San Francisco, 26 from San Mateo County, and 33 from Santa Clara County including 8 in San Jose.  There were also 9 responses from other cities, almost all in Alameda County.   

Interestingly, we didn’t see major differences among the counties in the overall strongly positive response to regional governance options. A somewhat higher share of BART skepticism came from Caltrain corridor respondents in Santa Clara County, where a BART extension managed by VTA has been planned since the 1990s, is not yet complete, and has taken a large share of funding raised by Santa Clara County voters.

Overall, the high level of support for regional governance options for Caltrain is notable in an audience that has been following transit issues on the Caltrain corridor and in the region.