Rienzo, Bolotina: Making the case for mass transit and Measure RR
A Caltrain is pictured in this file photo.

This year’s extreme heat waves and unprecedented fire season should shred any remaining doubt that climate change is here.

If carbon emissions and the attendant temperature increases continue to increase unchecked, extreme weather will become more frequent and intense.

Reducing California’s carbon output will be challenging because most of it now comes from transportation. According to the California Air Resources Board, “(E)missions from the transportation sector continu(e) to rise despite fuel efficiency and decreases in the carbon content of fuel. … Residents, in search of an affordable place to live, and with insufficient transportation options, are too often left with little choice but to spend significant time and money driving from place to place.”

Supporting existing mass transit infrastructure is crucial to solving our climate challenge.

Caltrain is the major rail transit service along the Peninsula, connecting residents and job-seekers to major employers and downtown commercial corridors from San Francisco to Gilroy. Yet, since it was taken over by San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, it has never had access to a dedicated source of funding.

Unlike most other Bay Area transit agencies, Caltrain gets most of its money from passenger fares. The difference is made up by voluntary contributions from the counties it serves.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again exposed exactly how precarious this financial arrangement is. Ridership has fallen by 95%, and revenue has plummeted. Even with access to federal money, Caltrain’s funding deficit is $18.5 million for this fiscal year.

Caltrain is actively discussing the possibility of shutting down or scaling back service. Although Caltrain’s latest polling revealed that 70% of riders plan to return to the service once public health restrictions are resolved, a significant cut in service would shake these riders’ faith in the reliability of the system.

With pre-pandemic ridership levels, it was estimated that Caltrain took four car lanes of traffic off highways. Without Caltrain, traffic will increase dramatically and dash any hopes of Bay Area cities achieving their emissions reduction goals.

It would also undermine many of the transit-oriented development investments that cities along the Caltrain corridor have supported.

The Sierra Club strongly supports public transportation. The national organization campaigns to “expand rail and bus transit networks and service, and create good regional transportation and land use plans…”

The mission of the Loma Prieta Chapter’s Transportation Committee is “to promote the most cost-effective, equitable, least polluting, and least sprawl-inducing transportation system possible. Special attention needs to be given to rectifying the imbalance between the resources devoted to automotive transport, and other modes, specifically, bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit.”

Public transit should serve communities of all income levels.Though it has lower-income riders, Caltrain knows they make up a lower proportion of passengers compared to the population of the area it serves.

Caltrain is planning to make service more affordable and accessible for low-income riders by improving midday and off-peak service levels so the service will be more useful for trips outside of the peak times for white-collar commute trips; working towards a regional means-based fare program; working with other transit agencies on fare coordination; and increasing service frequency, especially once the system is electrified.

This November, we urge all voters to support public transportation, less traffic congestion and a more equitable Caltrain. Vote Yes on Measure RR.

Bruce Rienzo and Olga Bolotina are the Chapter Chairs for the Sierra Club Loma Prieta and Bay Chapters. For more information re: Sierra Club’s position on Measure RR, contact Nathan Chan at [email protected]

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