Riders: No need for South County Caltrain cut

Many Caltrain riders would rather pay higher ticket prices than
to be without the train that about 350 South County residents
depend on to commute to work.
Many Caltrain riders would rather pay higher ticket prices than to be without the train that about 350 South County residents depend on to commute to work.

The train’s regular passengers also suggested ideas the multi-agency commuter line could implement to increase ridership, thus increasing revenue and reducing the need for potentially drastic service cuts.

Caltrain staff has proposed a list of service cuts and fare increases, some of which can be combined to close a $2.3 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain director of rail transportation, explained at a community meeting held at the Gilroy station last week.

The most contentious service cut on the table, but not the one that would save the most money, is the elimination of all trains from the Tamien station in San Jose all the way south to Gilroy. That elimination would save about $385,000, according to Caltrain staff.

Some passengers said they wouldn’t be able to continue working at their current jobs if the train was cut. Marsha Barnhard has ridden Caltrain five days a week for about 13 years, to commute to her job in Palo Alto. The Morgan Hill resident rode to the end of the line Thursday to attend the scheduled community meeting in Gilroy and to voice her support and ideas for keeping the train running.

She said if she had to drive to the Tamien station on Lick Avenue, she might as well keep driving to her office at Ideo – just 45 minutes farther – instead of catching the train from there. And like other riders at the meeting, she suggested an adjustment of the schedule for the three trains that pass through South County every morning and every evening.

Doing so would increase ridership – especially if Caltrain were to reinstate an earlier train that was eliminated from the South County schedule about eight years ago, Barnhard said.

“I’m still willing to schedule my life around that, but it’s getting harder and harder,” Barnhard said.

Currently, three northbound trains leave Gilroy every morning at 6:07, 6:30 and 7:05 a.m. and return in the evenings at 5:30, 7:07 and 7:47 p.m.

Other riders suggested Caltrain should include more advertising in its budget as a way to attract more passengers.

Fare revenues make up about 40 percent of Caltrain’s current operating budget of about $100 million.

Caltrain’s funding deficit is directly tied to a loss of state funding – about $10 million in the past three years – to the three agencies that jointly operate Caltrain, according to Bouchard. Those agencies are the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

The proposed cut of South County trains is “not a done deal,” Bouchard assured about 100 Caltrain riders as they exited the three trains arriving Thursday night in Gilroy. It is just one item in a list of possible service cuts that have been proposed as a way to make up the deficit, and it has been proposed in previous years but not enacted.

One reason the board has looked at cutting the line is because ridership through South County has declined steadily – by about 78 percent – since 2001.

The Caltrain board of directors is scheduled to vote on its preferred service cuts or fare increases at an October meeting.

Santa Clara County District 1 Supervisor candidate Forrest Williams attended the community meeting in Gilroy last week. Supervisors have traditionally taken turns occupying a seat on Caltrain’s board of directors, and Williams said if he were a board member he would not support the elimination of South County service.

The train is an important part of the economy as it connects South County residents to their jobs, and the agency should look for “more creative” ways to increase ridership and revenue.

“We need the trains coming because there are jobs here,” Williams said at the meeting. “If you cut (South County service), people might lose their jobs.”

He added cutting the route isn’t worth the $385,000 in savings, which is less than other proposed service cuts. Plus, he was encouraged to hear from passengers that they would accept a fare increase to keep the trains moving.

Williams served on the Caltrain board when he was a San Jose City Councilman.

Another important aspect of Caltrain that should sway the decision to keep current routes open is the fact it is environmentally friendly. “If we take it away, we’re saying that’s not important anymore,” Williams said.

The other candidate on the Nov. ballot for District 1 supervisor, Mike Wasserman, said he didn’t have enough details about the proposed cuts to comment on them. However, he said as a Caltrain board member, he would vote in a way that benefits South County.

“As far as I’m concerned, public transportation is a very important component for any community to have,” said Wasserman, who did not attend the Gilroy meeting. “It’s just a question of how that service is provided.”

Caltrain is consistent with the city’s general plan, which says the city should have a “balanced transportation plan” that integrates all reasonable modes of transportation for local people, according to city staff.

Hollister resident Kevin Henderson commutes to his work at Qualcomm in Santa Clara via Caltrain and a shuttle that connects his city and the Gilroy station. After riding the train for about six months, he is “hooked” on it. Caltrain does not offer a faster commute, and if not for the fact that his employer offers him a subsidy to ride the train, it would not be cheaper. But that’s not the point, he said.

“It’s not faster, but it’s more relaxing,” Henderson said. “I can take a nap. If you’re driving, you hit a lot of stop-and-go traffic in San Jose.”

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