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Caltrain Has Become a Regional Railroad — Now Its Governance Must Follow

Two Caltrain trains on passing tracks at Diridon Station

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Regional transit coordination and integration are urgent priorities for Caltrain. As board members prepare for Caltrain’s October 22 special meeting on regional governance options, SPUR urges the agency to commit itself to open-minded engagement in regional transit governance discussions.

Caltrain’s success, combined with the immense and uncertain impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, have made regional transit integration more urgent. Under its current governance structure, the rail operator has been successful by most measures. Pre-pandemic, Caltrain had extraordinary growth in ridership, with a 150% increase in the number of riders in a 10-year span. Caltrain developed a thoughtful and ambitious service vision and earned sufficient voter confidence to pass a dedicated sales tax measure at the ballot. The agency is now deep into a transformational electrification project that will allow for more frequent and sustainable operations. Despite these successes, and to a significant degree because of them, it is imperative that the Caltrain Board of Directors consider a strong and structured way to engage in regional transit governance decision-making and consider ways to institutionalize integrated planning and operations.

Even before the pandemic, the need for regional coordination was apparent. The Caltrain 2040 Long Range Service Vision committed the agency to “collectively plan for and study the feasibility of higher levels of service as well as expanded regional and mega-regional rail connections.”

Now, with pandemic-driven changes to transit use, transit faces extraordinary challenges. The region’s transit network is currently buoyed by federal emergency relief funds. As these funds are drawn down over the next several years, the Bay Area confronts the threat of unprecedented service reduction. The very agencies that were once strongest in ridership growth and fare revenues now face an uncertain future. An unprecedented 70% of Caltrain’s operating costs were supported by fare revenue, but now the railroad carries roughly 12% of its pre-pandemic weekday load. This could mean a budget hole of up to $60 million per year. Strategies to adapt to new financial conditions and travel patterns must include institutional reforms that will deliver greater adaptability and efficiency.

Meanwhile, we are in the midst of a climate emergency. Reducing fossil fuel consumption from driving by increasing transit use is central to the Bay Area’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even before the pandemic, major strides were needed to deliver a transit network that could meet our region’s climate and equity goals. According to Plan Bay Area, to reach our greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, we need 20% of people to commute by transit (see page 111). That’s 50% more riders than before the pandemic. Recovering pandemic-related declines in transit use, and then growing far beyond that, will be impossible without dramatic improvement in the coordination and interconnectedness of the transit network.

The Caltrain Board is nearing an interim agreement that will make Caltrain senior management more formally accountable to the board. Though this is an important milestone, it is not sufficient to help evolve Caltrain’s organization or business model. For this, Caltrain needs to consider new institutional models that would grow its capacity and enable greater regionalism. Such models could include a range of approaches, such as more structured coordination between Caltrain and partner railroads, separate regional authority responsible for interagency coordination and complete or partial consolidation independent transit agencies. The right structure is unknown at this stage, but the board and staff should participate with MTC and other transit agencies in considering and evaluating options.

Current capital projects demand exceptional regional coordination.

There are several large capital projects being planned along the Caltrain Corridor that are fundamentally about regional connections, so their success requires greater regional coordination and oversight. For example:

  • Diridon Station redesign and the delivery of BART Silicon Valley Phase II create the possibility for new seamless connections with other major rail operators including BART, Capitol Corridor and the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE), as well as the development of thousands of jobs and homes with great regional transit access. This project will only be successful if there are easy, intuitive connections between Caltrain and these other modes, and if there’s a customer-focused operating model for blended systems and stations. Furter, Caltrain owns the current station building, the parcels immediately surrounding the current station building and the adjacent maintenance yard, all of which will need to be modified for future service improvements.
  • The Caltrain downtown extension (DTX) will connect Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center and complete a regional transit hub in the Bay Area’s financial center, bringing together BART, Caltrain, express buses from seven different counties and eventually high-speed rail. This extension is essential for delivering the much higher train frequencies proposed in the Caltrain 2040 Service Vision (for which SPUR has long advocated). This project will only be successful if designed with enough capacity to accommodate increased service from the Peninsula and potentially across the East Bay (see Link21 below) and in a manner that prioritizes great connections to other regional modes. In addition, the design must prioritize redevelopment of existing rail yards in order to stitch together new communities along this corridor.
  • The Link21 planning process is examining wide-ranging options for new rail connections across the Bay Bridge corridor, including options that will connect Caltrain directly into Oakland and on to Sacramento. The case for this project is more successful if Caltrain grows into a frequent, all-day rail service and connects the growing communities and job centers between San Francisco and San José to the East Bay. Caltrain’s ridership could grow dramatically if it serves this much larger market.
  • High-speed rail continues planning for rail connections from the Caltrain corridor into the Central Valley and on to Los Angeles. The project is a critical part of the region and state’s climate response and economic development strategy, and it is intertwined with Caltrain’s operations and investment decisions.
  • Grade separation projects — which involve reconstructing roadways where they cross Caltrain tracks so they can run over or under the tracks — continue to be planned and implemented throughout the Caltrain corridor. Collectively, they will cost billions of dollars. Grade separations are essential for Caltrain’s service vision because future train frequencies will be too disruptive to local road networks, but there is not a coordinated plan for funding roadway changes or ensuring that they are delivered on schedule. A coordinated regional approach is essential to deliver these significant changes in an efficient and equitable manner.

These projects provide a backbone connection between areas of economic activity within the region and the state. They each have the potential to dramatically shape urban form and opportunities for growth, and the design of the infrastructure and stations will affect the function of the regional transportation network. They are also both high value and high risk. As such, they demand engagement from staff and decision makers at individual transit agencies — particularly Caltrain — with a focus on collective regional goals.

SPUR believes that current regional transit coordination challenges and opportunities demand more structured engagement from the Caltrain Board.

The Caltrain Board has shown progress toward resolving long-standing internal management challenges that have prevented the agency from engaging in regional dialogue. Now is the time to break the cycle of individual counties on the Caltrain Board putting the railroad’s future — and its riders — in limbo.

Last month, the board decided to move ahead with a discussion of regional transit governance options on October 22, demonstrating recognition that these issues cannot wait any longer. Caltrain’s pivot toward stronger participation in regional transit integration cannot be viewed as an additional distraction or a new layer of complexity and demands on top of Caltrain’s internal challenges. Rather, it should be approached as a way to solve Caltrain’s current challenges.

What does it mean for Caltrain to engage in regional governance discussion?

Regional transit governance conversations may cover a broad range of topics, some of which are related. For example, potential regional governance approaches enumerated in the Caltrain Business Plan Organizational Assessment include everything from participating in a regional construction authority to expanding into a broader regional transit agency in coordination with other regional rail providers. Two years since this organizational assessment named these topic areas, several regional integration efforts are beginning or are well underway:

The board must approach regional integration and governance decisions with a focus on how best to advance Caltrain’s service vision, rider interests and regional goals. Caltrain’s successful involvement in these studies, and in the development and evaluation of more significant regional transit governance reforms, will require meaningful staff resources as well as routine attention and direct involvement from board members.

The Caltrain Board is positioned to act.

SPUR encourages the Caltrain Board to take immediate action to strengthen Caltrain’s engagement in current and future regional transit governance discussions. Beginning at its October 22 special meeting on regional governance, and continuing at regular intervals going forward, we encourage the board to:

  • Quickly agree to management reforms under the current Caltrain Board structure, including formal accountability of Caltrain staff directly to the Caltrain Board. This is necessary for Caltrain to bring a unified voice to regional discussions about transit integration and coordination.
  • Begin steps to pay back San Mateo County for its investment in the right-of-way, including a mediation process to determine final amounts owed and payment timeline.
  • Acknowledge that Caltrain must consistently participate in, and bring a strong point of view to, the regional transit discussion, as well as that Caltrain’s success demands stronger regional transit integration and coordination than the Bay Area has today.
  • Adopt a resolution with a deadline by which to study and act on regional governance solutions, including those listed in the 2019 Organizational Assessment.
  • Acknowledge that immediate management reforms are an interim solution and affirm, by resolution, the board’s openness to new regional governance models that support delivery of Caltrain’s service vision and equity goals.
  • Acknowledge that governance reforms are a prerequisite to meeting climate and equity goals.
  • Direct and allow staff to engage with MTC and with other transit operators in developing regional governance options through current and forthcoming studies and planning processes.
  • Establish a Caltrain Board committee focused on the regional transit governance processes to ensure there is consistent board attention to this discussion and guidance for staff.

Caltrain can continue its trajectory as an increasingly vital and contributing component of the region’s transit network, but it will not be able to survive and thrive through this challenging moment without a new regional approach.