The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Mekhala Dandekar
It was 7:03 am, a cold morning in San Jose when the train whistle blew and there was an announcement for the 7:03 Baby Bullet arriving at San Jose Diridon Station (Baby Bullet is Caltrain’s express service. Far away amidst the morning fog, I could see clouds of hot steam exhaling out of the diesel locomotive and polluting the clean morning air. While I was waiting at the station I wondered, “Is this a sustainable approach for local transport?”
Caltrain is a commuter rail service traversing the 75 mile distance between San Francisco, San José, and Gilroy. There are 86 trains operating weekly using hundreds of gallons of fuel and resulting in high operating as well as high environmental costs.
The optimum solution to get rid of the rising fuel cost and pollution in the environment is electrification. The Caltrain electrification project, which was originally proposed for 2004, has now been tentatively revised for 2015, but the project continues to be endangered since the budget crisis last year. Worse still, an estimated $30 million deficit in 2012 has also threatened continuation of Baby Bullet all together.
Caltrain is governed by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which is a partnership between 3 agencies- San Mateo County Transit District (Samtrans), Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency (SfMuni). A part of Caltrain´s operating fund comes from the local tax revenues contributed by the JPB. However, all three bodies have been struggling with their own financial difficulties, and as a result, Caltrain does not have a dedicated source of capital for further improvements. Caltrain funding is made more difficult because it is deprived of a single authority to make development decisions. Its electrification project in 2004 was rejected by the JPB because of an inadequate funding plan.
While Caltrain’s plans are stuck in the middle of the current funding crisis, there are other projects that are capturing the limelight. One example is the California high-speed rail being constructed between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Because of this shift in transportation priorities, government funds are split between a number of projects, leaving a nominal amount for Caltrain to use on improvement projects.
I am a regular commuter on Caltrain, but do not rely solely on the Caltrain system. While I agree that the high-speed rail project is important for development of California’s economy, I doubt its placement as a top priority for transportation investment. At present, we can only predict ridership figures on the high-speed rail system, while Caltrain already has ridership levels of 35,000 passengers every weekday; to me, it seems clear which system needs immediate funding.
I believe Caltrain does not have a sustainable message to convey to its riders which is resulting in diminishing ridership. Economically, the ticket fares for parking and riding are equivalent to driving a car from San José to San Francisco. Environmentally, the train is not doing any more harm. In my opinion, Caltrain electrification can be an effective solution to its financial problems by attracting many commuters who wish for a cleaner and greener future. The Caltrain Electrification project can be a symbol for sustainability, allowing Bay Area commuters to feel better about using Caltrain as a viable means of transportation.