26 September 2020

Vote Yes on Measure RR

For all the criticism of Caltrain that you might have read on this blog over the last decade, you might think that my support for the upcoming Measure RR 1/8th cent sales tax measure in the three counties served by the peninsula rail corridor would be tepid at best, and that I’m no friend of Caltrain. True friends, however, aren’t measured by giving unconditional praise. True friends question things that are taken for granted and start conversations about uncomfortable subjects. I see enormous potential for the peninsula rail corridor, potential that can’t and won’t be realized without stable and predictable funding. That’s why I urge you to vote Yes on Measure RR.

The peninsula rail corridor is under-developed
If a ride on Caltrain takes you back to 1985, that's no coincidence. Most of the fleet is that old, well past its sell-by date. And yet, with antiquated equipment and obsolete labor practices, this diesel commuter railroad still manages to carry the equivalent of three freeway lanes, and does so while covering a greater share of its operating costs (chart credit: Juan Matute) than any other transit operator in California. This level of financial self-sufficiency is unheard of for any freeway, and yet billions are spent on the futile exercise of adding lanes to the Bay Area freeway network and enabling the rich to buy faster trips on express lanes at the expense of gridlock for everybody else. A dense corridor with large job centers distributed throughout is ideally suited for regional rail, and the latent capacity exists to grow Caltrain into the equivalent of more than an eight-lane freeway, except faster, quieter, less polluting, and conveniently serving city centers. This can't happen without more investment.

Electric regional rail is the right technology choice
Here in Silicon Valley, we hear constantly about the next big technology leap: driverless cars, autonomous electric pods, door-to-door on-demand service hailed by an app, tunneled hyperloops, and endless promises of a clean, efficient and convenient science fiction future of seamless mobility. In that environment, it sounds positively retrograde to support what futurists often deride as 19th century technology, the same steel wheel on steel rail that first turned on the corridor in 1863. That framing misses the point: what we have here isn't a technology problem; it's a geometry problem. It takes space to move people. Short of inventing teleportation, you can't solve a geometry problem with the latest Silicon Valley technology, and none of these newfangled ideas can scale to the raw transportation capacity of regional rail, especially on a linear corridor such as the peninsula. There is no technology on the horizon that can carry this many people, using this little space, this fast, using this little energy. Throughput capacity is measured in units of people per square meter per second per Joule, and none of the exciting new mobility tech can beat regional rail on this metric. Hyperloops and pod cars have laughable throughput, and a driverless electric car sitting in traffic or queuing for a tunnel is still just another car, consuming the same scarce resource of space. All this new mobility tech is best thought of as a capillary network that will connect to the aorta of the rail corridor, each one enhancing the other in unclogging the circulatory system of our peninsula.

Caltrain is heading in the right direction
This isn't the first time that Caltrain finds itself in financial distress, and the big picture remains the same as it was ten years ago. The difference now is that the agency is actively planning for a better future, with its methodical business planning efforts showing a clarity of thought and ambition that is rare for an American transit agency. A logical plan driven by quantitative metrics is exactly the framework needed to convey and to realize the potential of the peninsula rail corridor, with a 2040 growth scenario that gradually builds on the foundation of the electrification project. A sound business plan is the seed; stable and reliable funding is the water to make it grow.

Much more than just a Covid bail-out
The pandemic and the high fixed costs of operating a railroad are putting a huge financial squeeze on Caltrain right now, all the more punishing because Caltrain derives a greater share of its operating expenses from fare revenue than any other agency in California. There is little doubt that the first step if Measure RR passes will be to bond against future tax revenue to survive in the short term. But that's not the point; RR was in the works before this started, and will be needed after it ends. As the economy revitalizes and transportation demand returns, Caltrain will be packed to the rafters again. All this talk of continued work-from-home and depressed transportation demand is myopic, mistaking our current predicament for a future trend. The creativity and vitality of our region is based on co-location and face-to-face contact--if it weren't, Silicon Valley or San Francisco simply wouldn't exist. Stable funding for Caltrain will ensure that modernization and service expansion won't stall after electrification is completed, and that we won't get stuck with mediocre commuter rail, just now with pantographs on top.

The reasons above come in addition to the strong arguments in support from Seamless Bay Area, Friends of Caltrain, and Streetsblog SF.  Please vote Yes on Measure RR.

Now back to our regularly scheduled tough love.


  1. Clem writes:
    "All this talk of continued work-from-home and depressed transportation demand is myopic, mistaking our current predicament for a future trend."

    Disagree! What is myopic is failing to recognize that the work-from-home model is going to be a huge reality in the future-- the glamor days of commuter rail will be forgotten history.

    Caltrain and its supporters, seem to believe that it is just fine to provide better service and more trains, but caring nothing about the terrible traffic congestion that is created by not grade separating over 40 crossings along the peninsula.

    This group supports grade separations, but not paying for them, which suddenly in their minds,becomes an obligation of local communities. Nuts to that attitude.

    Measure RR should be defeated. It is an increase of a regressive sales tax, causing undue extra hardship on the poor.

    Finally, the side deal agreed to by Samtrans, ensures that control of Caltrain will shift from Samtrans to a new group, led by San Jose and SF interests. They don't give a damn about the local congestion that will be created with crossing-gates being down 20 to 30 minutes each commuter hours.

    I am voting NO on Measure RR

    1. Caltrain does care about congestion. Why do you think that when trains packed with 1000+ passengers zoom by during rush hour?

      It's also taking a lead anytime cities get want to work on grade separations like currently:
      * Broadway in Burlingame
      * 25th Street in San Mateo
      * Rengstorff Ave in Mountain View

      Yes, it sucks to wait at a crossing, but it's just like a red light, and most unsafe ones are getting converted to overpasses.

      Your logic to vote against RR because you hate congestion is short sighted. Do you think 1000+ passengers in each train - equivalent of 3 lanes on 101 will disappear or will many simply cause you additional congestion to roads you take?

    2. Huh!? The simplest 2-phase traffic signal, assuming co-equal streets, is red 50% of the time (30 minutes per hour). For any non-trivial (multi-phase) intersection with left turn phases, etc., the signal red times are significantly greater!

      The insane and costly double-standard goes something like this:

      • wait for trains carrying hundreds up a thousand (pre-COVID) = BAD! OUTRAGEOUS! INTOLERABLE!
      • wait for autos carrying dozens = huh? Perfectly and unremarkably normal and fine!

      Therefore we must demand and insist on $100-$250 million dollar grade separations before trains are allowed to run more frequently, taking more lane & intersection-clogging cars off the roads!

    3. You seem to speak of work-from-home as someone who isn't actually doing it every day. In my own experience, it kills the creative spark of spontaneous interactions and spends down (rather than accruing) relationship capital. It is not sustainable, and most people who extol its virtues are silver-haired retirees who want to preserve the character of the neighborhood by wishing away the basis for transportation demand.

      Touche on the regressive sales tax, but it's still better than nothing at all, and the principled voices that object to this are usually well-off.

      As to your windshield perspective, other commenters have already called it out. Your average El Camino light is red > 30 minutes per hour for the cross street, even at massive traffic sewer intersections like Page Mill in Palo Alto, with "down-time" durations far longer than a typical grade crossing. You can read more about this in "Quit whining about gate down time."

    4. WA Post Article on working remotely from home.


      Lots of companies are adopting this model... it is affecting real estate values like in NYC and elsewhere.

    5. People not commuting to work will make traffic where they live much worse. If someone heads out in the morning and returns in the evening, no midday trips. If they have kids they drive to school on the way to work, they'll still be driving to school. If they pick them up on their way home, they still will. Enjoy what you wish for when they are driving around during the day for lunch and other errands when they'd usually be off wherever their office was.

      Everyone is currently navel gazing, just like after 911. Upside, a temperature scan of one's forehead is much less annoying than taking off one's shoes and emptying pockets.

  2. I wonder how much of this is purely subjective and psychological. Traffic signals "feel" shorter (or more acceptable) because traffic is crossing. Whereas for crossing gates, most of the down-time, there's nothing visible crossing on the rails.

  3. Virtual reality tour of the new Stadler KISS EMUs for Caltrain is up. Good to see they've moved the in-seat power outlets to be out of the way under the seats instead of on the seatbacks.

    1. Also our first look at the new upper door plugs, as discussed here.

    2. Is Caltrain keeping the original doors and bridge plates, so they can be fitted in the future?

    3. Yes, Caltrain is going to keep the upper doors in storage. They’ve also budgeted a significant sum for installing them someday way in the future. (I’m too lazy to look-up the figure in a recent board meeting agenda package.)

  4. Everyone in my building in San Francisco got a Yes on RR flyer in the mail today. The word is getting out.

    1. Because so many of SCCo. voters live and work too distant from Caltrain for it to be at all relevant seeming (let alone merely familiar) to them, I’m afraid SF and SMCo. voters will need to vote yes on RR at a substantially higher rate than 2/3 (~66.7%) to make up for SCCo. where I expect no votes will substantially exceed 1/3 (~33.3%).

  5. If Caltrain gets "stable funding" from the counties and a federal covid bailout, why would it care about ridership or cost control? This is a fundamental problem with monopoly providers of any service, be it transit or something else. As mentioned, rail transit is high capacity, but comes with inflexible routes and high fixed operating costs. Is the $6+ billion for extending Caltrain two miles to Salesforce going to be the reason SF will vote for Measure RR funding?

    1. If Caltrans gets "stable funding" for maintaining freeways, why would it care about usage or cost control?

      Double standard.

    2. San Francisco will vote for RR because San Franciscans generally see the benefit from transit. It was SF's margin that got the original BART package passed in the 60's, making up for lower margins in Alameda and especially Contra Costa. Hopefully we can do that job again in a few weeks to make sure all three counties can enjoy good service in the future.

  6. PA Daily Post with Pro and Con on Measure RR


    1. The 'con' makes a disingenuous argument that Santa Clara and San Francisco counties don't have a say in the governance of Caltrain. These counties are represented on the board. Moreover, these counties also have not repaid San Mateo County for their share of the purchase of the ROW.

    2. Documents from 2004 might be a little bit too crusty. A better source for the status of the repayment to San Mateo County is the recent special counsel report. Santa Clara County has fully repaid, and San Francisco still owes $200k (i.e. a pittance). San Mateo County is still owed $19.8M by regional entities, not the other counties in the JPB. So in essence, the counties are all paid up for their share of the purchase of the ROW.

    3. The anti-transit anti-rail, pro automobile Palo Alto Daily Post editorial contains some erroneous points, one of which has been removed from the original editorial.

      PA Daily Post: “Caltrain’s board is appointed by officials in San Mateo County even though the railroad also serves Santa Clara and San Francisco counties”

      Note that The PA Daily Post removed their original error about board selection.

      Caltrain’s board is NOT appointed by San Mateo County officials. In 1987/88 San Francisco, San Mateo, And Santa Clara Counites entered a joint powers agreement to study the takeover and management of the railroad from Caltrans and Southern Pacific. This agreement was amended in the following years and thus the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board was created. The (JPB) board is composed of 9 members, 3 from each county. Each county appoints its own 3 board members. The JPB selected SamTrans as the managing agency for Caltrain.
      In 1992, the JPB purchased the railroad from Southern Pacific. SamTrans stepped up to the plate to fund the purchase when Santa Clara and San Francisco would not. Additionally, California Prop 116 (1990) funds also helped purchase the railroad.

      PA Daily Post: “Most of Caltrain’s money comes from fares. But Caltrain typically needs another $20 million to $30 million every year to balance its budget. So Hartnett goes hat-in-hand to transit agencies in the three counties for funds to balance the budget.”
      The Joint Powers Agreement specifies that the three partner agencies will fund Caltrain operating costs not covered by fares. This funding was not set in stone and has become more discretionary over the years as each county agency had its own budget crises. So as county funding diminished, fares had to go up. As fares go up, lower income riders are priced out of Caltrain. Caltrain is the only bay area transit system that does not have a dedicated funding source. This makes Caltrain fares the highest in the bay area.

      PA Daily Post: “Caltrain’s own fare study shows that 60% of its riders make over $100,000”

      In 2007 58% of Caltrain riders made less than $100,000. Currently fewer than 40% of Caltrain riders make less than $100,000. Since 2007, fares have increased by over 40%, so it’s no wonder that high-income riders continue to ride Caltrain while lower income riders abandon Caltrain. The fare-zone system is discriminatory and must be reformed to distance-based fares like BART. On BART you ride two miles, you pay for two miles. On Caltrain you ride two miles, but you must pay for 13 miles or in some cases you pay for 26 miles if you cross a zone line while still only riding two miles. Another problem is that lack of funding prevents more frequent service outside of peak commuting hours. Lower-income riders are likely to use trains during off-peak hours. Who wants to depend on a transit service that runs once every hour?

      PA Daily Post: “If RR is approved, Caltrain can stop asking the other two counties for money, avoiding any oversight. RR is a blank check — $108 million a year with no oversight.”
      The counties will have oversight through the Board of Directors. As mentioned above, the Board consists of 3 representatives from each county.

      PA Daily Post: “After Caltrain replaces the $20 million to $30 million it gets from the three counties, what would it do with the remaining $78 million to $88 million from the tax?”

      Caltrain can lower fares to make it more affordable. Caltrain can increase service to make Caltrain more accessible to residents and visitors to the peninsula. Caltrain can invest in more capital improvements.

      PA Daily Post: “Caltrain hasn’t laid off one single employee.”

      Caltrain has received federal stimulus funding, this funding stipulates that agencies receiving the stimulus are not to furlough or layoff employees as the stimulus is intended to keep people working. So Caltrain is not able to layoff anyone. The stimulus funding will be depleted by the end of the year and there is no guarantee of a new stimulus package.

  7. Atherton Town Council to discuss & possibly approve Caltrain station closure MOU at 3:30 pm today, Monday, October 26: https://www.ci.atherton.ca.us/Archive.aspx?AMID=41&Type=Recent

  8. Join Caltrain tomorrow (Friday 10/30) morning at 9 a.m. with special guest, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, for a VIP tour of the new Caltrain EMUs at Stadler’s Salt Lake City factory.

    Access on Zoom: bit.ly/3oz5mCY
    Password: 307788 ID: 959 8661 2116 or via Facebook Live.

    1. Video of the event is here. I wonder what is meant at 24:30 by the statement that these trains will allow level boarding with 550 mm station platforms. Unless the step design was changed in significant ways, they will not.

  9. Atherton station to close.
    And RR passed.