The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

Is Caltrain Going Broke?

by Irvin Dawid

Illustration by Nina Khashchina.
Illustration by Nina Khashchina.

Plagued by reduced revenues from regional partner contributions and a decline in ridership, Caltrain faces a $12.5 million deficit, or 16% of its operating budget. To pull out of this deficit, the commuter railroad must reduce expenses or increase revenues through fares and fees—or both.

As a first step, Caltrain declared a fiscal emergency at their June 3 board meeting. This relieves them of responsibility to conduct an environmental review before making service cuts. The Caltrain board will hold a public hearing in July to announce service reductions to go into effect this October. Fare increases of up to 7.2% should be expected in January 2011.

At the April 1 board meeting, Caltrain's Chief Executive Officer Michael Scanlon warned of the severity of the cuts to come, telling the Caltrain Joint Policy Board, "This is not an April Fools' joke. This is real. We're at a watershed moment where there's a possibility this railroad could go away."

Where Caltrain Gets its Money

Unique among the Bay Area transportation agencies, Caltrain receives no dedicated funding of its own. The other major Bay Area public transit agencies—BART, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI), Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), SamTrans, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit— all receive dedicated funding from sales taxes, property or parcel taxes, bridge tolls, or parking fees in addition to rider fares. Caltrain, on the other hand, relies primarily on fares and 'contributions' from the San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara county transit agencies in its service area.

In its fiscal year (FY) 2010 (July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010), contributions from the three counties made up about 39% of Caltrain's operating budget, and fares made up another 40%. According to Mark Simon, Caltrain's Executive Officer for Public Affairs, the remaining 21% of the $97 million budget came from "a variety of state, local and federal sources, much of these one-time funding sources."

Due to reductions in state funding and sales tax revenues, SamTrans indicated it would reduce its contribution to Caltrain for FY 2011 (effective July 1, 2010) from $16.5 million to $10.6 million. On May 26 the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved a shuffling of new, one-time federal funds that would allow SamTrans to add back $4 million to this contribution.

More Funding Reductions

It is expected that MUNI and VTA will also reduce contributions, although so far only MUNI has indicated it would do so.

Caltrain's FY 2011 operating budget will be $79 million, a reduction of $18 million, or almost 19%, from FY 2010. Without the efforts of Sierra Club California and other transportation advocates working at the state level to restore much of Governor Schwarzenegger's drastic reduction of public transit assistance, the budget figure would have been $5 million lower.

Down the line, Caltrain appears to be pinning a major part of its budget deficit resolution on electrification of the corridor, which means partnering with the High-Speed Rail Authority. Electrification would significantly reduce costs, as well as pollution and noise, from the current diesel-powered system, and is seen as essential to Caltrain's long-term survival.

Irvin Dawid is co-chair of the Sierra Club Bay Area Transportation Committee.