Tuesday, March 29, 2011

San Mateo councilman: Delay vote on Caltrain station closure

March 29, 2011, 03:55 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

A San Mateo councilman is ready to ask his colleagues to support a resolution urging the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board to delay a vote on closing Caltrain stations until a regional funding solution is found.

“The specter of station closures has had an adverse impact on all communities along the Caltrain corridor,” San Mateo Councilman David Lim wrote in a letter to the council.

Caltrain is considering the reduction of weekday trains from 86 to just 48 to run during commute hours only and the suspension of weekday service at up to seven stations including Bayshore, South San Francisco, San Bruno, Burlingame, Hayward Park, Belmont, San Antonio, Lawrence, Santa Clara and College Park.

The JPB is scheduled to discuss station closures at its April 7 meeting but has indicated a vote on service reductions may be pushed back until May as officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission work on a plan to keep the trains running for at least another two years.

For now, its all hands on deck in finding a short-term funding fix for Caltrain, said JPB Vice Chair Omar Ahmad, also the mayor of San Carlos.

Voters in three counties may face a regional tax to fund Caltrain as early as the November 2012 election if transit supporters can get it on the ballot.

Lim wants to make sure MTC is given enough time to develop a short-term funding solution before the Caltrain board takes the ax to seven low-performing stations.

“Individuals make decisions on where to live, work and how to commute dependent on Caltrain and the stations that currently operate. Businesses that rely on commuter traffic face the possibility of lost revenue, which ultimately trickles down to the ability of the city to collect revenue,” Lim wrote in the letter.

San Mateo’s Hayward Park station is currently being considered for closure but Lim said it should stay open considering all the transit-oriented development the city has planned for the area around it.

“Many communities, including San Mateo, have invested considerable time and resources developing policies and communities tied to the Caltrain corridor,” Lim wrote.

San Mateo’s General Plan, the Transit Oriented Development Plan, the Downtown Master Plan and the Sustainable Initiatives Plan all heavily reference the Caltrain corridor and accompanying stations for future development in the city.

Caltrain, however, lacks a dedicated funding stream and relies on contributions from the San Mateo County Transit District, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for survival.

Short-term solutions offered up by the MTC include diverting about $5 million from the Dumbarton Rail project and the repayment of part of a loan from VTA for $7 million.

A fund swap could also divert money into operations, away from capital projects.

Caltrain’s problems essentially stem from SamTrans’ own problems as it too faces a nearly $11 million deficit next fiscal year.

SamTrans has reduced its contribution to Caltrain by nearly $10 million the past two years and Muni and VTA have followed suit.

SamTrans’ Chief Executive Officer Michael Scanlon said last week he hopes the proposed solutions from the MTC, including a possible fund swap, could help minimize the service reductions and keep more than 48 trains running during weekdays next fiscal year.

Although Lim’s resolution to have the JPB wait for MTC solutions may be only symbolic, South San Francisco Councilwoman Karyl Matsumoto said her city may too consider such a resolution considering the South San Francisco station is also threatened with closure.

“I think it is a good idea. This might even be a good thing for South San Francisco,” Matsumoto said of Lim’s resolution.

As chair of the SamTrans board, Matsumoto’s mission is to make sure that bus service is maintained in the county.

“We had to cut our funding to Caltrain as to not impact bus service,” Matsumoto said.

Lim will introduce the resolution because he sees Caltrain as a vital service to his city.

“This resolution would send a clear message that the city of San Mateo appreciates the efforts to resolve this financial crisis without resorting to drastic rhetoric and that we stand with our fellow city and county representatives in recognizing the important impact Caltrain has in all cities,” Lim wrote.

The City Council will consider Lim’s resolution at its April 4 meeting, three days before the JPB next meets.

Timing is critical for the JPB, because it must properly notify the public of fare increases or station closures well before July 1, when the next fiscal year starts, Ahmad said.

“I have no problem with the effort in San Mateo,” Ahmad said. “At some point, though, we must inform the public of changed schedules and station closures.”

MTC help could allow Caltrain to run somewhere between a low of 48 trains to the current 86 trains the agency currently operates.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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