Ackemann: Caltrain finally asks for its fair share
Caltrain’s rebirth came as the late 1990’s tech industry exploded in Silicon Valley and workers were looking for ways to avoid traffic. Photo courtesy Caltrain.

Vote yes on Measure RR today, and I promise I’ll never ask you to #SaveCaltrain again.

In the past 20 years, I’ve probably turned — hat in hand — to the public asking for help rescuing Caltrain a half dozen times in my various roles. At the heart of each request was the same ongoing structural problem: Caltrain lacked a dedicated funding source. Measure RR finally solves this slow-moving crisis.

The story of how Caltrain came to be the ‘Oliver Twist’ of transit agencies is a bit more involved.

In the 1970’s, the Bay Area’s private operators were getting out of the local transportation business because bus companies such as Greyhound and commuter railroads such as Southern Pacific couldn’t compete against the single-occupant vehicle. People no longer shared a single car among family members and used transit for the other trips to get around.

Local governments recognized that without the vital service these private operators were providing, transit-reliant individuals would be stranded. Between 1970 and 1980 a raft of local sales tax measures were passed — most a half cent in perpetuity that would underwrite the cost of transit in that county. This ensured transportation would be affordable and available to people who had no other way to get around.

You’re probably wondering why Caltrain didn’t get in on the 1970’s sales-tax largesse from which so many other public transportation agencies benefited.  The answer to that is both provincial and complicated.

There was no regional agency that could step in and take over Caltrain’s fate when Southern Pacific decided to get out of the passenger commute service in the 1970’s the way that local counties could absorb bus operations within their own jurisdictions. Purchasing a railroad and its assets is a much more revenue-intensive activity, particularly when it crosses three counties.

At the time San Mateo County had revenue through its self-help measure and other sources to purchase the tracks, stations, and equipment to take over the railroad.

Within a couple of years, the three counties formed a Joint Powers Agreement and cobbled together a commitment to make voluntary funding contributions from each of the three member agencies’ budgets to keep the trains running.

The agreement formed the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board to oversee the train’s operations, but the voluntary nature of the funding commitment would mean that eventually — each member agency agreed — a permanent funding source would need to be found.

Then Caltrain fell through the proverbial cracks.

For a time, the demand for Caltrain service was steady but small. The service couldn’t reasonably compete with the single-occupant vehicle for most trips. And most Peninsula workers were headed into San Francisco’s financial district, which was not a convenient connection from Caltrain’s Fourth and Townsend stop.

Caltrain’s rebirth came as the late 1990’s tech industry exploded in Silicon Valley. Young engineers were looking for ways to avoid traffic. But with a one-way trip on Caltrain taking up to two hours between San Francisco and San Jose, it was still only competitive with the worst traffic — but the congestion on Highway 101 was becoming just that.

Soon the question became: How could Caltrain be even more competitive without funding to add tracks and equipment?

US Rep. Jackie Speier and Caltrain’s executive team had a solution for that: The Baby Bullet — named by Congresswoman Speier. It obviously wasn’t a bullet train but it was a step closer than Caltrain had ever gotten.

The first Baby Bullets could travel between San Francisco and San Jose in just under an hour. This changed the way people commuted, creating the “Baby Bullet Effect,” which demonstrated that commuters were willing to go out of their way to ride transit if it were a true competitor to single-occupant vehicle traffic.

In some respects, Caltrain was a victim of its own success. More people riding led to standing-room-only trains, fine for a few stops on a subway but less than ideal if you are standing for up to an hour.

But if more people riding meant Caltrain was collecting more fares, it also meant people expected more service. More trains mean more operators to run them, conductors to staff them, mechanics to repair them, dispatchers to communicate with them and so on.

More is not an endless burden each of the three transit agencies can bear. Ultimately, their counties each need their transit tax investments just as much as Caltrain does. It shouldn’t be a competition — there’s room for everyone at the proverbial table.

Measure RR will allow Caltrain to steer its fate. It will still be subject to the same economic headwinds that affect other transit agencies but without having its fate directly tied to the fortunes of its neighbors. Today, when SamTrans, MUNI or the Valley Transportation Authority catch a cold, Caltrain has pneumonia.

So, for the last time, I’m asking for your help. Together we can #SaveCaltrain by voting yes on Measure RR.

Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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