Ackemann: Sam Liccardo’s support for Caltrain is lip service
A Caltrain at the San Jose Diridon Station is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Luke Johnson.

    I want people to understand that when San Jose’s Mayor Sam Liccardo writes a Medium post patting himself on the back for “supporting efforts to save Caltrain” he never really did.

    If he is proposing more of the same kind of “support” for Caltrain he and his fellow Santa Clara County and San Francisco representatives have shown over the years, he can keep it.

    Supporting Caltrain is NOT doing the bare minimum to keep it alive for the last 30 years. The failure to identify a dedicated funding source and guarantee that operational funding would be available to maintain service levels year over year has been one of the most limiting factors on Caltrain’s ability to plan for and achieve growth and improvements. If you didn’t know how you were paying for groceries, you probably wouldn’t be putting much money in savings for a new roof. Would you?

    In spite of the obstacles that Santa Clara and San Francisco officials have placed in Caltrain’s path, the agency has successfully gone after and won funding for major improvements like the Baby Bullet express, grade separation projects and electrification.

    Santa Clara County elected officials have a long history of paying lip service to Caltrain, while underfunding the system. That’s why so many Caltrain projects were included in the original BART funding measure, the 2000 Measure Transportation Improvement Program. The measure’s authors hoped northern Santa Clara County voters (think Palo Alto) would be more likely to approve the tax if they felt they were getting something out of it. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t).

    As it turns out there was nowhere near enough money in the 2000 Measure A proposal to pay for BART let alone Caltrain improvements.

    In 2004, the Federal Transit Administration gave the BART to San Jose proposal a “Not Recommended” rating. The project was cautioned against by the federal government because there was no operational funding plan.

    The federal government told VTA that it could not go forward with its planned expansion of BART service to Santa Clara County because the organization failed to plan for the long term costs of operating the extension.

    Sound familiar?

    I’m sure Mayor Liccardo assumed that failing to consider how to pay for a newly-constructed plant was no big deal. Santa Clara County had been doing it with light rail extensions for years. Indeed, they joined Caltrain’s Joint Powers Board in the early 90s with that very understanding — that member contributions for operational funding would be voluntary.

    What that has meant for Caltrain is that San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have been content to give Caltrain just enough to keep it alive but never enough to allow it to thrive. Each time the two counties restricted their capital, maintenance or operating funding, they sent a clear message about where their priorities were.

    Now they’re wondering why Caltrain isn’t doing better.

    Someone should remind Mayor Liccardo that he can take a look back at VTA’s budgets, many of which he voted on as a board member, if he’d like to understand why Caltrain isn’t doing better.

    Remember all that funding that was supposed to go towards Caltrain grade separations and station improvements from the Measure A improvement programs passed in Santa Clara County in the early aughts? I do, because I was VTA’s communications manager at the time.

    It’s funny how little of that money actually made it to Caltrain. What sucked it up? Mostly BART to Silicon Valley.

    In 2000, VTA led by Ron Gonzales and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group put a sales tax measure known as the “2000 Measure A Transit Improvement Program” on the ballot that was supposed to fund the following improvements, among others:

    • Extend San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District service (“BART”) from Fremont through Milpitas to Downtown San Jose and the Santa Clara Caltrain Station (the “Silicon Valley Rapid Transit Project” or “SVRT”);
    • Improve Caltrain by extending the system’s double track to Gilroy and providing funds to electrify the system;
    • Increase Caltrain service;
    • Improve the Highway 17 express bus service;
    • Connect Caltrain with the Dumbarton Rail Corridor (serving Alameda and San Mateo County);
    • Fund operating and maintenance costs associated with increased bus, rail and paratransit service.

    Did it? Well, no. You see, in 2004, VTA got that “Not Recommended” rating. As a result, they had to go back to the drawing board. Suddenly they needed an additional sales tax “due to economic downturn” (the one that didn’t start until 2009), and the project was divided into two separate phases as opposed to the one that was originally envisioned in the 2000 Measure A language.

    At the height of Caltrain service levels, the agency was operating 98 trains per weekday. Prior to the pandemic-caused downturn in early 2020, Caltrain was operating just 92 weekday trains. That doesn’t look like Mayor Liccardo and VTA kept its service growth promises to me. The extended double-tracking to Gilroy? Nope, I guess Mayor Liccardo didn’t think commitment to non-San Jose or Santa Clara County riders were important. Connections to Dumbarton? Not even with Facebook practically sitting on top of the rail spur out there.

    Meanwhile, what has happened is that San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have systematically reduced the amount of their Caltrain operating contributions as a percentage of Caltrain’s overall budget for years.

    In FY 2007, SamTrans provided $15.6 million toward Caltrain operations, VTA contributed just $15 million and San Francisco County provided $6.6 million. In addition to giving the largest overall funding contribution at the time, SamTrans also gives the largest contribution proportional to its OWN actual revenues. By FY 2011, all the agencies had reduced their contributions due to the Great Recession, VTA. SamTrans gave $14.7 million, VTA $14.1 million and San Francisco County $6.2 million.

    Recently, Caltrain changed the way it reports member agency contributions – likely due to sensitivity by its partners that they had been historically perceived as underfunding the system. But for the current fiscal year’s budget, the three member agencies agreed to hold their contributions “steady” at the previous years’ levels.

    The total amount the three agencies contributed to Caltrain operations for the current fiscal year was just $22.5 million.

    I’ve worked in local government most of my career. Costs go up. That’s a universal truth. Except when it comes to the way Caltrain’s member agencies view their funding obligations.

    What Caltrain needs is to be taken off of life support and given the funding it requires to plan for its future without constantly having to triage its present. Once the system is stabilized, its leaders can have the conversation about its future.

    Maybe if Caltrain had not been forced to scrape and beg, just to keep its doors open, it too could have passed multiple sales tax measures to fund half of one project because that appears to be Mayor Liccardo’s definition of success.

    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. She held leadership roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water. Follow her on Twitter @jaymeackemann.

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