New transit chief fast-tracks goals for Peninsula travel

The San Mateo County Transit District’s new transit chief has been on the job for less than three months, but he is no outsider to the agencies he now leads.

Jim Hartnett has many goals for his new position, and he is currently focused on priorities he championed while serving on the boards of the Transit District, Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The Transit District includes SamTrans, Caltrain and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which funds transit and transportation programs. As the district’s new general manager and CEO, Hartnett also serves in those capacities for SamTrans and is the executive director of both Caltrain and the Transportation Authority.

One of the first priorities Hartnett established was to achieve financial stability and long-term sustainability for Caltrain and SamTrans.
“SamTrans struggles with a structural deficit each year and Caltrain lacks a dedicated funding source, making long-term financial planning and stability nearly impossible,” Hartnett said.

While both agencies’ budgets might need work, Hartnett noted that, due their public funding models, only some of their costs are recovered from end users. For every $10 worth of service SamTrans provides, its riders pay just $2, and Caltrain fares cover just 65 percent of that agency’s operating expenses.

Another top priority for Hartnett is to make sure the Caltrain Modernization Program (CalMod) is successfully completed on time. Under the program, Caltrain’s service from San Francisco to San Jose will become all electric by 2020. And by 2040, Caltrain’s carbon emissions along that corridor will have been reduced by 97 percent, Hartnett said.

The modernization program should also bring the agency closer to meeting Hartnett’s financial sustainability goals, as it will not only have lower energy costs, but also generate more revenue by increasing capacity and serving more riders.

“CalMod is the single most ambitious project Caltrain has ever undertaken,” Hartnett said.

The modernization program is also a crucial part of meeting the increased need for transportation created by the growth of tech companies along the transit corridor, Hartnett noted. Toward that end, the transit chief has also called for the agencies under his purview to undergo structural changes that will allow them to respond more rapidly to shifts in passenger demand and the economy.

California’s high-speed rail project also figures prominently in the Transit District’s plans. That system, expected to be operational by 2029, will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles using trains that travel up to 200 mph. And between San Francisco and San Jose, those trains will operate on Caltrain’s tracks, which will likely be upgraded to allow a maximum safe speed of 110 mph. Caltrain’s vehicles, which have a top speed of 79 mph, will use passing tracks located throughout the corridor to pull over and allow the faster trains to pass them when necessary.

Hartnett was serving on Caltrain’s board when it voted to partner with the high-speed rail project, and he made sure the resolution contained an amendment requiring that the board only support the effort if it aligned with Caltrain’s goals.

So far, the two agencies’ priorities appear to be aligned, but Hartnett said a forthcoming high-speed rail service report would reveal any potential future system compatibility issues.

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