Rail advocates, Caltrain representatives and concerned Peninsula community members joined forces Wednesday evening in City Hall to brainstorm potential funding sources that could be dedicated toward saving the financially troubled rail system.
Caltrain, which announced last month it was suffering a fiscal emergency, is now searching for the $3.5 million administrators claim that is necessary to avoid pulling 10 trains from the 86 currently running during the week, or closing any stations.
Wednesday night's town hall meeting was the fourth in a series of eight sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group occuring throughout the Peninsula, intended to rally community support for a dedicated funding source that would prevent Caltrain from experiencing similar fiscal emergencies in the future.
Councilwoman Rosanne Foust spoke briefly at the meeting in favor of Caltrain and the role it plays in offering a local transportation option for Peninsula residents.
"Caltrain is very important," she said. "It is what we need."
She said it is not just the business community who relies on the rail system, but also those who like riding it to explore the greater Bay Area.
The rail system is paid for by a Joint Powers Authority, comprised of Sam Trans, Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco Muni. The three agencies have decided together to pony up the $25.3 million necessary to avoid service reductions, and the Caltrain board will meet Thursday at the system's headquarters in San Carlos to take action on the next steps toward finalizing its budget for the next fiscal year.
Caltrain representative Seamus Murphy said that should any service changes take place, they would be implemented in July.
"Hopefully no service changes are necessary," said Murphy.
Caltrain is the only local transportation agency that is not sponsored by a dedicated funding source. And Murphy said that should local residents care to pass a funding measure for the system, two-thirds of voter approval in both San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties would be necessary.
One of the available revenue options being considered by the Caltrain Board of Directors is increasing ticket and parking prices. Caltrain makes more money at its fare box than any other local transportation system, said Murphy.
Bena Chang, a Group associate, said that eventually the intention is to poll the community regarding residents' collective interest in potentially passing a tax that would serve as a dedicated funding source for Caltrain. At the meeting in Redwood City though, the emphasis was illustrating the need for such a source to those in attendance, and then attempting to brainstorm any potential viable options.
"We are not here to focus on the short term," said Chang, who referenced the structural deficit facing Caltrain.
Some ideas suggested were the potential for attempting to secure federal and state funding, as well as investigating the feasibility of taking out a loan, issuing bonds or collaborating with the High Speed Rail Authority to bring high-speed rail trains through the Peninsula.
Murphy said eventually it is a goal of Caltrain to electrify the entire system, which would allow the system to operate more efficiently by sending more trains into circulation in a more coordinated fashion. But he said that the electrification project could cost about $1.5 billion, and that the Caltrain board is more focused on solving its pressing financial issues before turning attention to the possibility of electrification.
"It's not an easy thing to do," he said, regarding the system's electrification.
And though the one-time funds may have been found to save the Caltrain system from service cuts this year, Murphy said there is still work to be done in order to the system being stuck in the same state again this time next year.
"The perception is that the problem is solved, but that is not the case," he said.