STANFORD (BCN) — Caltrain needs a sustainable and permanent source of funding, according to the consensus of elected and transportation officials who gathered at Stanford University Friday to address the transit agency’s $30 million deficit.

It was a resounding echo among the nearly 250 attendees at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s “Save Caltrain” summit to find a dedicated source of revenue for the commuter rail system, which transports an estimated 38,000 passengers up and down the Peninsula every weekday.

“Can we imagine if we had no Caltrain?” said Sean Elsbernd, San Francisco Supervisor and Caltrain Joint Powers board of directors chairman, during a presentation on the agency’s fiscal situation. “What would it do to the environment?”

It was one of the questions discussed among members of a panel that included Assemblyman Jim Beal; San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed; Dan McCoy, associate director of transportation at Genentech; Elizabeth Deakin, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley; and Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a nonprofit public transportation advocacy group.

“We have a choice between saving Caltrain or building six lanes on the freeway,” Beall said.

Panel members agreed the system is essential for reducing air pollution and for its role in the regional economy.

“It’s an essential piece of growing business, and recruitment and retention,” McCoy said. “Having a reliable, low-stress option is key to our recruitment efforts.”

Deakin said that beyond those benefits, Caltrain stations serve as centers where communities are established.

The panel offered short- and long-term solutions to cut operating costs and generate revenue. Beall suggested that all local transportation agencies should be merged into one entity. Deakin, Cohen, and McCoy recommended diverting revenue from a high occupancy toll lane on U.S. Highway 101.

During a breakout session, participants proposed additional options to boost revenue such as a sales tax increase, a voter-approved gas tax, and parking-fee increase at Caltrain stations. They suggested offering WiFi and a business-class rail car to increase ridership.

The budget deficit has prompted Caltrain to consider reducing its service from 86 to 48 weekday trains, eliminating weekday service outside peak hours, eliminating weekend service and service south of San Jose’s Diridon Station, and suspending service at up to seven stations.

Beginning Jan. 1, Caltrain hiked fares by 25 cents per zone and eliminated two northbound trains and two southbound trains from its midday schedule.

Caltrain has also started running a three-month pilot program of weekend “baby bullet” express trains to attract more riders and raise revenue.

About 44 percent of Caltrain’s funding this year will come from passenger fares, and 34 percent will be contributed by Caltrain’s partner agencies: the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans.

SamTrans, which serves as the managing agency for Caltrain, is expected to reduce its annual contribution to $4.7 million—a loss of nearly $10 million.

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said all three organizations are facing budget troubles of their own.

He suggested that in order to save Caltrain, efficiencies must be sought in the public transit system as a whole.

“That is not an easy task. But it is not an impossible task,” Heminger said. “Ultimately what we want is to secure a more reliable funding stream.”

The public will have a chance to weigh in on Caltrain’s funding crisis in a meeting on Jan. 29 at the SamTrans Auditorium, located at 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos.

The meeting will be hosted by Friends of Caltrain, a grassroots group of Caltrain supporters.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)


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