Almanac

News - March 30, 2011

Caltrain cobbles together financial survival plan; negotiates for 5 million in VTA funds

by Sandy Brundage

If negotiations with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) go well, Caltrain might get an infusion of $4.9 million over two years to prop up its operating budget.

Right now, the public transit program faces a projected $30 million shortfall in its operating budget, and could run out of cash by 2015, according to the agency.

If it doesn't find a solution, Caltrain may cut the number of weekly trains from 86 to 48, eliminate weekend trains, and close up to seven stations.

But the VTA funds could ease the severity of those cuts.

"There will have to be some service reductions," San Mateo County Transit District CEO Mike Scanlon told the board of directors on March 24, as quoted in an agency press release. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we can put together the puzzle and while there will be some sacrifices and some cuts, it won't be nearly as severe as we had originally planned."

The money would come as repayment of funds extended to VTA by SamTrans in 1991 to buy right-of-way for Caltrain.

"We agreed they wouldn't be obligated to pay it back, but would make their best effort to do so," explained Mark Simon, SamTrans executive officer for public affairs. The agency anticipated repayment in 2007, after voters passed a proposition allowing gas taxes to be allocated to transit.

"That was the first time around of $4 gas, so that fund got very large," he said. "But instead of allocating the funds to transit, the state took them. So we never quite got the money."

While the repayment could help Caltrain, it doesn't do much for its parent agency, which appears to be prioritizing buses over trains. "Saying 'you can have the money, but have to use it for Caltrain, doesn't help SamTrans," Mr. Simon said. "It all affects how much service we can provide. Either we find another source of money, or the cuts get worse."

According to the board, the funding would provide only two years' of relief, leaving the directors searching for ways to propose a permanent funding source to voters for approval in 2012. Currently Caltrain receives most of its money through contributions from San Francisco, the Santa Clara VTA, and SamTrans.

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