Paying for Caltrain

This week I went to a meeting of the Bay Rail Alliance, where the topic was paying for Caltrain. The agency is facing a grim deficit because it depends on earmarked state transit funds that are regularly raided for other uses.

To close an immediate budget gap, Caltrain is making changes including increases in parking fees and charges for employer-funded transit passes, and cutting back on mid-day service. Based on overwhelming community feedback, a worse proposal to eliminate weekend service was taken off the table.

Even with these changes, Caltrain’s revenue is unstable, unlike Bart, which gets some of its funding from local taxes. So the Bay Rail Alliance is interested in investigating potential sources of regional funding. If you’re interested, look for updates on the Bay Rail Alliance website.

While the operating budget is iffy, the capital situation looks promising. The Bay Area is a candidate to get stimulus funding targeted at high-speed rail. Since the stimulus funding needs to go to shovel-ready projects, what this means in practice is that stimulus funding would go to items including Caltrain electrification, and preparing the Transbay terminal to handle the long-awaited extension of Caltrain to the water’s edge. See Transbay Blog for good detail and ongoing coverage.

There are two underlying system problems that make these things a lot harder than they should be. The first is the underlying structural bankruptcy of the California budget process. The calls for reform seem to have quieted down a bit during the knock-down dragout budget battle in Sacramento but hopefully will pick up after the battle. (Comments on what’s going on would be welcome.) If reform goes anywhere, it will need a large constituency, and part of the alliance ought to be green; transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and raiding transit budgets is not the way to get change.

The second system problem is the fragmented of the bay area transit system, were 26 seperate agencies serve a metro area of 7 million. Better regional governance would remove a lot of un-needed friction in creating a great system, but would take major reform.

One thought on “Paying for Caltrain”

  1. Electrification of Caltrain would not only make it more inexpensive to operate (we still have 70 year old catenary wires operating on high-speed rail lines in the northeast), but would also better prepare the corridor for high speed rail. The decrease in costs due to the elimination of diesel service, in addition to the environmental benefits, would be a huge boon to the bay area.

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