Caltrain faces deep cuts, perhaps even closure

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Caltrain's San Francisco station on Townsend is crucial to the regional transportation system.

Serious doubt was cast over the future of Caltrain today, with this vital commuter rail link threatened by the same funding cutbacks that are hobbling other regional transit agencies. The joint-powers agency might be forced to cut its service in half this summer – probably by eliminating night and weekend service -- or perhaps even shutting the system down.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in a fiscal emergency and moving ahead with service cuts and small but controversial revenue enhancements, all approved Tuesday by its Board of Directors, and the nearby San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) are in similarly desperate straits.

Those three agencies run Caltrain, and all have had to scale back their funding commitments in order to preserve bus and light rail services in their core communities. "We're rapidly approaching a cliff," Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon told the Caltrain Board of Directors today, according to the San Mateo Times. "It's going to be very, very painful. It's probably going to force people back on congested freeways."

Caltrain spokesperson Mark Simon told the Guardian that the agency is fully funded through the current fiscal year that ends June 30, but after that, “I don’t know how long we can survive.”

“I don’t think I need to tell someone at the San Francisco Bay Guardian how bad things are at the SFMTA,” he said, adding that the situation is as bad or worse at the other two agencies, and that Caltrain has no other sources of operating revenue.

“That issue has come to a head and it’s come to a head because the state has zeroed out how much money it gives to public transit,” Simon told us. “What’s really heartbreaking is that this is a time when we should be adding service.”

Indeed, Caltrain has been moving ahead with plans to electrify its track, which would increase train speed and therefore system capacity while polluting less. But while it seeks federal grants for that capital project, the operating funds that have traditionally come from the state via SFMTA, VTA, and SamTrans have dried up (state and federal transportation funds are strictly divided between capital and operating funds).

Unlike Caltrain, SFMTA and many other transit agencies have the authority to put general tax measures on the ballot to fund transit services, but so far in San Francisco, neither Mayor Gavin Newsom nor the seven SFMTA board members he appointed have shown any leadership is doing so.