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Caltrain weathers dreadful budget process
June 03, 2011, 01:39 AM By Bill Silverfarb, Daily Journal Staff
Caltrain will keep on running its full schedule with no station closures next year as the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board approved a $103.8 million operating budget yesterday, the highest in the transit agency's history.

A $30 million deficit, however, was closed with one-time schemes that do not solve Caltrain's long-term structural deficit.

Staff is already working on a fiscal year 2012-13 spending plan to avoid having to declare another fiscal emergency next year as it has the past two years.

The operating budget was closed by deferring millions of dollars in maintenance to Caltrain's aging fleet, a fact that could prove more costly down the road, said April Chan, director of budget and grants.

Caltrain is also trying to squeeze up to $12 million more from its three member agencies to meet a $64.6 million capital program budget for next year to keep its rolling stock healthy.

"Huge capital investments are needed in the next two to three years," Chan told the board yesterday.

Caltrain has been able to keep its full schedule intact the past couple of years by swapping funds out of capital into operations, at the risk of maintaining its rolling stock, Chan said.

Most of Caltrain's fleet was purchased in 1985 and is due for major rehabilitation or even retirement.

Caltrain lacks a dedicated funding source and gets most of its support from riders at the fare box. Much of the remaining revenue needed to survive comes from voluntary contributions from the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

SamTrans, however, has its own deficit and has greatly reduced its contribution to Caltrain, causing Muni and VTA to follow.

VTA, however, did pledge to repay SamTrans up to $7 million for a right-of-way purchase made years ago if the money went to Caltrain's operating budget.

Despite Caltrain's ongoing $30 million structural deficit, the board moved to keep the full 86-train schedule intact, rather than a reduced 48-train schedule the agency can actually afford to operate, to push for a dedicated funding stream in the form of a regional tax or fee, likely in 2012.

Caltrain's biggest expense is its operating contract with Amtrak at $58.8 million a year with fuel being its second biggest expense at about $14.5 million a year. It also spends more than $4 million a year for security on the line that stretches from San Francisco to Gilroy.

At yesterday's meeting, Chief Executive Officer Mike Scanlon announced that the Peninsula Rail Program has been rebranded the Caltrain Modernization Program.

The PRP is the local arm of the California High-Speed Rail Authority on the Peninsula that also answers to Caltrain. In prior years, the PRP was responsible for design and technical aspects of the high-speed rail project on the Peninsula before the statewide project started in earnest in the Central Valley.

Going forward, the new Caltrain Modernization Program will conduct outreach on the Peninsula in a non-technical way, Scanlon said.

"It will be more of a planning exercise," Scanlon said.

The Caltrain Modernization Program has an annual budget of $1.6 million and comes out of the capital budget.

Caltrain is currently conducting a capacity analysis to determine what level of local service can be accommodated alongside high-speed rail trains, Scanlon said. It is also partnering with the state rail authority to pay for a positive-train-control signaling system as mandated by the federal government at an expense of about $16 million.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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