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Friends of Caltrain Struggle to Define Future of Train Service

"Huge uncertainties" exist over high-speed rail and electrification.

After a meeting Wednesday evening in Redwood City, Friends of Caltrain met in Palo Alto Tuesday night at another “Save Caltrain” meeting to brainstorm a long-term vision for the cash-strapped train service. In order for Caltrain to obtain stable, long-term funding, the State of California should increase property taxes, enact a sales-tax measure, or increase vehicle license fees, suggested 40 participants who attended.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG), who organized the event, also proposed redirecting San Mateo County's measure A and M funds as another method to obtain a long-term funding source. One participant discussed the idea of giving discounted entry fees to those who used Caltrain to attend entertainment and sporting events.

Last Thursday, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board to continue its current 86-train schedule with a fare and parking fee increase. Last week’s vote was good news, said Board Member Liz Kniss. She worried, however, that people may believe Caltrain’s fiscal problems are over.

“Caltrain has an on-going, structural deficit due to the fact that there is no dedicated source of revenue,” Kniss said. “Year in, year out the system is dependent on fluctuating one-time funds and creative service solutions,” she said. “There is no permanent funding for this train. It does not exist,” she said.

Participants wanted a clear vision of the future of Caltrain. Some expressed concern over uncertainty with high-speed rail and its possible impact on Caltrain’s future. Disagreement also emerged over whether Caltrain needed electrification in order to modernize and reduce operating costs.

“We go into solutions without having agreed upon what the issues are,” council member Pat Burt said. “We haven’t evaluated to what degree which modernization elements would benefit most,” he added. “It’s not necessarily electrification."

Given all the uncertainties surrounding high-speed rail, possible electrification, and whether a public would support tax increases, the group agreed Caltrain needed to come up with a convincing and tangible vision for the future. There are “huge uncertainties,” right now, one participant said.

Another participant suggested making Caltrain more user friendly by coordinating shuttle service and connecting timely-transit services at stations.

“You’ve got to build confidence so that in three, five, six, eight years that we’re not in the same place that we’re in now,” council member Gail Price said.

 More than 40,000 people ride Caltrain everyday, SVLG senior associate Bena Chang said. If Caltrain disappeared car commuters would see more congestion on El Camino Real, and on the 101 and 280 freeways, Price said.

SVLG will hold another town hall meeting April 27, 6 p.m., at Burlingame City Hall, Council Chambers.

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