Editorial: Legislators Should Vote to Help Sustain Caltrain

July 19, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial

Anyone who doubts the value of supporting a venerable commuter train system between San Jose and San Francisco should spend a little time on Highway 101. Actually, anyone who manages to spend just a little time on Highway 101, where traffic quagmires are routine, should consider himself or herself lucky.

Imagine what that 50-mile stretch would be like without Caltrain, which carries 62,000 passengers each way during weekday commutes, when it runs at 125 percent of capacity.

Fortunately, expansion is on the horizon with the Trump administration’s recent decision to release a $647 million federal grant as the last funding piece that will upgrade the trains from diesel to electric power. The electrification project is projected to nearly double Caltrain’s passenger capacity. Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and political and business leaders from the Bay Area deserve great credit for pressing U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to free up that federal contribution to complement the local, regional and state funds that are going into the project.

Yet Caltrain still needs to upgrade something else: its revenue reliability.

Caltrain’s operating budget is dependent on a highly unusual arrangement in which its funding partners in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties make annual contributions based on ridership. This injects unacceptable volatility into a system that is so essential to the region.

As a more stable alternative, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has authored SB797, which would give the three counties in Caltrain’s domain the authority to ask voters for an eighth-cent sale tax to raise about $100 million a year. That would cover the annual contributions by those three counties, while leaving up to $70 million a year for maintenance and new infrastructure.