Caltrain's Baby Bullet train at Diridon Station, San Jose (photo by snty-tact)

Caltrain is in trouble. It’s a major commuter line, running from San Francisco to Gilroy and serving San Jose, tenth-biggest city in the country, and Silicon Valley, where, according to Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, one-third of venture capital invested in the US is spent. A mighty important transit service, you would think, yet it doesn’t even have its own dedicated funding source. It’s funded by three area transit agencies that do have taxes dedicated to funding them, and that decide each year how much they’ll give to Caltrain. It hasn’t been enough. Right now things are so bad that Caltrain is in danger of shutting down completely within a year, and is planning to cut back service drastically this year–which, of course, would cause ridership to plummet.

We only refer to a few kinds of transportation as “public,” but the fact is that no transportation system in this country thrives without public funding. Transit can’t survive on passenger fares alone, any more than the highways are funded by tolls. The federal government subsidizes car travel to the tune of almost $80 billion a year, which is well over half the Department of Transportation’s budget. (My wife, who knows a lot about this stuff, reminds me that the interstate highway system, launched in the Eisenhower administration, is the biggest public works project in the history of the country. These Republicans, always taxing and spending!) Trains have had to compete with airlines as well, while both the airlines and airports have received government funding far outstripping that of railroads and transit. And that’s just federal funding; states also fund roads, bridges, highways, and airports more generously than they fund rail. We’ve gotten what we’ve paid for: gridlocked roads everywhere and a marginal rail system.

Transit can’t be done by halfway measures. The service has to be fast and frequent enough that it makes other options unattractive. For example, I would take transit to work much more often if it ran earlier on Sundays and more frequently on weekdays, but since the train can’t get me to work on time on Sunday, and leaves me waiting an hour for the next train on weekday nights, I usually drive. More bicyclists would take the train if it had more bike cars, but it can’t do that and carry its capacity of riders–unless it has a lot more funding and can run more trains. Partial and insecure funding just creates a system that turns would-be users away.

It’s the same story with Amtrak and the once-thriving private railroads that used to serve the whole country. Amtrak receives less than $1 billion a year, and not surprisingly, has become less and less useful and relevant since its creation in 1970, but there are members of Congress who seriously propose that we cut what little Amtrak funding remains. McCain is one of the worst–man, did we dodge a bullet when we declined to make him President.  He’s not proposing that we de-fund transportation–our tax dollars will still pay for air and car travel.  But when it comes to rail, he insists it be purely private.

The solution being sought right now by the BayRail Alliance includes a lot of private help: Stanford University and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group are funding polling and studies. That help is key, but long-term–even past the next few months–Caltrain needs serious public funding, because it’s competing with heavily government-funded options. If we want transit and rail service, we ought to fund them at the levels we fund the roads and highways, or cars will become our only option.

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