The Structural Deficiencies of Caltrain
Caltrain is one of the few commuter rail-type services in the United States that attains significant ridership over a short length. For comparison’s sake, look at Caltrain and Metrolink in Southern California. Metrolink has over 500 track miles, yet only has a few thousand more daily riders than Caltrain, with its 70 track miles. Caltrain’s remarkable effectiveness is due to its alignment along the San Francisco Peninsula, a dense urban-suburban area with high volume transfer points on either end of the line, San Francisco and San Jose. The Peninsula Corridor (as Caltrain’s alignment is known) was scheduled for a BART line from San Francisco to Palo Alto until San Mateo County defected from the BART district in the 1960’s. Despite the lack of a BART line, and perhaps because of it (and the express service the commuter rail mode allows), the Peninsula Corridor’s demand and land use around stations justify a fully grade separated, electrified, rapid transit line. This vision is nearer to reality than ever before with the California High Speed Rail Program potentially providing funding to electrify and quadruple track the Peninsula Corridor between Tamien in San Jose and a new terminus at the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco.
Still, Caltrain is cutting service and raising fares faster than any other transit agency in the Bay Area. This is due to the structural deficiency that is built into the agency’s operations as a joint powers authority. Instead of a special district, like BART or AC Transit, Caltrain is a joint powers agency, a government corporation that is controlled directly through other government agencies. The joint powers in Caltrain’s case are the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. These agencies fund Caltrain’s operation through grants of there operational funds. Instead of sustenance through a levy like BART and AC Transit, Caltrain is inherently dependent on the contributions of SFMTA, SamTrans and VTA. All three of these agencies have no set amount and give as much to Caltrain as they please. For this reason, the recent budget cuts at SFMTA, SamTrans and VTA have hit Caltrain harder than the transit agencies’ operations themselves. This deficiency is structural: Caltrain’s level of service is inherently dictated by the whims of other government agencies, rather than through taxes and public discussion.
A solution? Consolidation of the governance of BART and Caltrain into a single agency. A single operating agency for all regional rail in the 9 county Bay Area would allow operational synergies (collective purchases, consolidation of departments) and more importantly, give Caltrain a dedicated source of revenue like BART. Without that revenue, Caltrain’s level of service will continue to depend on inconsistent funding from other public agencies that are nearly bankrupt themselves. The Bay Area cannot allow this critical regional rail link between San Francisco and San Jose fall into budget hell. Consolidation is the key.