Caltrain Adds Fare Increases to List of Budget Crisis Solutions

526559333_186bf6f182.jpgFlickr photo: Rev Dan Catt

Facing a budget deficit that threatens to end train service altogether, the Caltrain Board of Directors voted today to declare a fiscal emergency and began considering some new options to cover the deficit for the next fiscal year, including raising fares.

Caltrain has whittled together enough money through partially restored state funding and one-time savings that it may get through the next fiscal year, 2011, without gutting the railroad, but with a $12.5 million deficit left to cover, its staff is proposing cutting some service altogether, including the three trains that reach Gilroy daily, and increasing fares by 25 cents.

Working out the numbers in the past month, Caltrain staff has found that cutting service has limited returns, said Caltrain Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey. That’s because Caltrain has an especially high fare box recovery ratio. "We’re getting over 40 percent [of our revenue] out of the fare box," said Harvey. "So when we start cutting service, we start losing revenue in a big way. You have to cut a lot to get a net savings."

By cutting the three trains to Gilroy, Caltrain expects it would save $770,000 annually, versus just $200,000 from cutting four midday trains altogether, and just $170,000 from cutting four early morning and late evening trains. Harvey said those trains have much higher ridership, so cutting them cuts deeply into fare revenue, offsetting much of the savings on operating costs, compared to the more sparsely patronized Gilroy trips.

Caltrain would get even less out of cutting weekend service: staff projects it would save just $420,000 from cutting weekend service altogether, since weekend riders are generally different than the commuters who ride the train during the week, and most pay per trip instead of using an unlimited monthly pass.

Without taking any votes on the budget today, the board appeared to favor the Gilroy option. As for fare increases, the options include a 25-cent increase in the base fare, netting $2 million annually, an identical increase in the fare for each travel zone, netting $2.8 million, or an increase in the employee-sponsored Go Pass from $140 to $155, bringing in $150,000 annually.

"Fares are a sensitive subject, particularly in this economy," said Harvey. They were last increased in January 2009, and if the board approves it, they could increase again next January. While the path to a balanced budget still isn’t certain, he said the combination of fare increases, service cuts, and capital funding swaps should leave the agency in a position to "cobble this together." The service changes could go into effect as soon as October.

The board will take a vote on the FY2011 budget on July 1, with money from the service changes and fare increases assumed. But an actual vote on both of those changes won’t happen until later: first, the agency will hold public hearings in July and August on any changes. Oddly enough, that means the public could be commenting on major changes that haven’t been approved yet, but are assumed for budgeting purposes.

Things look even worse for fiscal year 2012, however, when the agency faces a projected $35.6 million deficit.

Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon said he was "cautiously optimistic" about fiscal year 2011, and that the board could approve a budget that would "buy us another 12 months." But there are "dark, dark clouds ahead in the not too distant future," he said.

"The cliff at the end of the next year is an extremely steep cliff and extremely difficult one to fall off and survive," he added.

The fiscal crisis at Caltrain snowballed in April when Scanlon, who also heads SamTrans, announced that agency, hit hard by the poor economy itself, would likely pull 70 percent of their funding contribution to Caltrain. That triggered similar moves from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

At the time, Scanlon suggested Caltrain might need to cut 50 percent of its service to balance its budget. That’s no longer looking likely for fiscal year 2011, but it’s still uncertain how Caltrain will make it through FY2012.

"We have not been able to find a service model that will work to keep this railroad open" in FY2012," said Harvey.

  • I don’t have much to say about this except the JPB needs to figure out a way to make itself an entity that can raise revenue. The peninsula benefits a ton from Caltrain and 101/280 will be a parking lot if it goes away.

  • Raising cost reduces demand. Already a cheap, fuel-efficient car beats the train in direct cost. At some point, increase fares reduces demand sufficiently to cancel the revenue advantage of the higher fare.

  • djconnel, when you add in ALL the costs of a cheap, fuel-efficient car it is still EXTREMELY more expensive then any small fare increase to Caltrain. But if you look at cost of gas per trip vs train ticket, then yeah you are right. But I think we all know there is more to owning a car then filling it up.

  • Remind me again why Caltrain finds it necessary to pay up up to 3 Amtrak employee, UTU member, make-work “conductors” on every train?’

    Remind me again why Caltrain’s very highest capital spending proiority is wasting $165 million of your tax dollars on a make-work project in San Bruno that will degrade service and is guaranteed to need to be done over almost from scratch?

    Any operator that gave a damn about public benefit would have instituted one person (ie the train driver) operation and level platform-car boarding (speeding up train stops for all passengers) one or two decades ago now.

    But no: at Caltrain it’s all “give us infinite HSR boondoggle slush cash or we’ll kill this puppy”. Well, screw them! An agency that inefficient and that singularly focused on contractor and employee welfare doesn’t deserve to exist. (And I speak as an Caltrain rider for 18 years.)

  • @mikesonn – It may be true that the total costs of car ownership outweigh the total costs of Caltrain commuting, but if you make a transit option more expensive than the fuel costs of driving then you’re going to have a very difficult time attracting new ridership or ridership from any of the vast majority of folk who own cars.

    I have to pay my car insurance and parking permit costs no matter if I ride the train or drive – the economic calculation that I make when I wake up in the morning and decide what mode of transit it use isn’t the total cost of car ownership, it’s the cost of fuel. You can scream “economically irrational” all you want, but people don’t operate as rational economic actors only.

    @Richard – Only having a single driver on the caltrain would be terrible from a public safety standpoint. I’ve seen several fights break out on the thing and there would be no way to monitor fare evasion without conductors. Perhaps 3 is excessive, but we couldn’t simply cut the staff without making the system unworkable.

  • SFR, you are right.

  • Andy Chow

    More ideas about how to solve the budget crisis here: http://www.greencaltrain.com/2010/06/resolving-the-caltrain-budget-crisis/

  • AMC

    Hey Richard thanks for your comments. Since you are disappointed with the way they run things and employees why are you still riding? Typical liberal BS.

  • MDK

    An engineer and two conductors, what about the added ticket checkers? In the many years of riding CalTrain I’ve only recently been seeing these additional employees doing the job the conductors typically do. So why these extra ticker checkers especially when they are having budget issues?

  • Moley

    If CalTrain closes, this will be a tragedy of vast proportions. At a time when new rail systems like SMART and (maybe) HSR are being planned, it is unconscionable that a major rail asset be allowed to rust and rot. Or just be used for freight.

    In Europe, some lines that were closed back in the post-WW2 austerity programs are now being brought back into use, assuming they weren’t built over of course.

    In some cases, this takes the form of light rail on the permanent way of the old tracks.

    But the CalTrain route arterially links all the major Peninsula population and business centers. It is highly popular but badly-managed and wrongly-equipped.

    At a time when the only thing we seem to be able to get new money for is major new showpiece projects like Central Subway, SMART and HSR, couldn’t CalTrain or somebody come up with a new proposal to totally re-invent this service? I’m not sure the current system can or should be fixed. We need to think bigger here.

  • AMC, options for travel down the peninsula are limited. Like it or not, Caltrain is the only option. Knock it off with the liberal BS crap, come on now.

    MDK, I haven’t seen an added ticket checker. I ride every day and have only been asked for a ticket from a conductor.

  • Mike – there are in fact fare inspectors on many trains, taken from the normal staff.

  • I’m confused. Normal staff being the conductors right? Same thing? There is the operator (person driving) and then two conductors (who also do ticket checks). Right?

  • No. There is a pool of people who work as conductors. Sometimes they will be assigned fare inspector duty.

    The conductors also do ticket checks, but generally not when there is an extra fare inspector. And the person on fare inspection isn’t doing conductor duties. This is a union after all.

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain has a 3 person crew. One operates the train directly (engineer), the conductor (basically the captain of the train) and the assistant conductor.

    Conductors basically check with the engineer to confirm train signals, controls the doors, operates wheelchair lift/ramp, makes announcements, monitors bike boardings, and then check fares.

  • @Andy – as I am trying to point out, they have been running many trains with 4 person crews – the added person being a fare inspector.

  • John, I was unaware of that. Maybe because I’m usually just chilling in the bike car and when someone asks for my ticket I just assume it is a conductor. If it is the really nice lady working tonight, I’ll ask her about it.

  • “Conductors basically check with the engineer to confirm train signals, controls the doors, operates wheelchair lift/ramp, makes announcements, monitors bike boardings, and then check fares.”

    Oh, my. Wheelchair ramps.

    Yes, that is how primitive 1950s commuter service might operate.

    In modern 21st century societies, the computer confirms the train signals, the computer makes the announcements, and the driver controls the doors (sometimes through video monitor).

    And no need for wheelchair ramps, thanks to miracle of level-platform boarding.

    Over the past two decades, Caltrain has had both the funds and the opportunity to install level platforms, and to install PTC signal system — obviating the need for so many conductors. If anyone at the agency had half a brain, Caltrain would not be in the mess it is in now.

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