Will Arnold Schwarzenegger Destroy Caltrain?

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s war on public transportation could be about to claim a very high-profile victim: Caltrain. Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon gave a dire warning yesterday about massive cuts that would wipe out half of Caltrain’s services:

Caltrain has gone broke and will likely need to wipe out half its service – including weekend, nighttime and midday trains – officials warned Thursday, bracing passengers for a major shake-up to the popular commuter line that links San Francisco to the South Bay.

“This is not an April fool’s joke,” Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon told the agency’s board of directors. “This is real. We’re at a watershed moment where there’s a possibility this railroad could go away.”

Scanlon said the service cuts, which would idle trains for much of the day, would need to be completed by June 2011, although the agency may begin slashing its schedule as soon as this fall.

The impact of these cuts would be nothing short of catastrophic for the Peninsula’s economy, which relies on Caltrain to get workers to their jobs and consumers to retailers (and in many ways that includes the San Francisco Giants and San Jose Sharks) to a far greater extent than is realized. Losing this much Caltrain service would be a massive step backward for the Bay Area, a step away from mass transit and back toward the failed model of dependence on cars and freeways that the region had begun to move beyond.

As Michael Scanlon pointed out, the loss of state funding has been simply devastating:

The agency has lost $10 million in funding from the state each of the past three years. And for more than a year, it has been losing riders, which account for 40 percent of its revenue.

But now a new, more damaging problem has emerged. Scanlon, who is also the CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans, said he will ask that agency’s board of directors to lower its Caltrain contribution by nearly 70 percent by July 2011.

SamTrans, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco Muni each provide Caltrain with a subsidy, which combined amounts to $39.4 million. But with the smaller SamTrans contribution, VTA and Muni will lower their shares proportionately. SamTrans, Muni and VTA all recently cut service and raised fares, and Scanlon said they are “beyond broke.”

A fare increase has not been proposed, as officials say it would drive away even more riders. They also don’t expect to propose any ballot measures, such as tax increases, citing the recession.

In short, because Arnold Schwarzenegger has used the state budget crisis to wage war on public transportation to benefit his oil company donors, with a Department of Finance full of right-wing ideologues who demand mass transit pay for itself when freeways aren’t held to the same standard, local transit agencies are hemorrhaging money, worsening Caltrain’s already precarious situation.

Ultimately the response will have to be some sort of regional funding source to support mass transit. There should be a Bay Area-wide tax, ideally on gas, to fund operations of the region’s transit agencies, from Muni to BART, from Caltrain to AC Transit, and the smaller agencies in between.

And of course, there will need to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore state public transportation funds. This needs to become a top priority not just of the passenger rail advocacy community, but of Californians as a whole. In the summer of 2008 local transit agencies had much more capacity to handle the massive increase in ridership that helped California avoid the worst of the gas price increase. As we face another increase in gas prices later this year, we are left with much less transit to fall back on. The result could be a choking off of our state’s halting steps toward economic recovery.

Arnold’s war on public transportation has extremely dire effects for all of us. It’s time to band together to save not only Caltrain, but transit services across the state, and our own future prosperity.

Read more about this, and the impact on high speed rail, over at my California High Speed Rail Blog.

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