Caltrain’s 2014 operating budget is sunny, but 2014 maintenance and 2015’s budget are at risk

Helped by nearly $6 million in added revenue driven by increased ridership, Caltrain announced at yesterday’s board meeting that the 2014 operating forecast was uneventful, with no planned service cuts.  However, the budget continues to be balanced with temporary sources, which go away after this year, so 2015 looks risky again.

In recent years, SamTrans has cut its contribution due to financial problems, the other 2 county agencies have cut to match, and much of the remaineder has been made up by VTA and Muni paying SamTrans back from its 1990s purchase of the right of way. That loan will be paid back after this year.   Even though Caltrain brings in about 60% of its revenue from riders, it gets 40% of its funding from public sources, the majority of which comes from the 3 counties. If the counties don’t start picking up the tab again, Caltrain is left with a $20 million dollar hole in its budget.

On the bright side, the San Mateo County Supervisors are considering using some revenue from a sales tax approved by voters last November to support SamTrans. This could enable SamTrans to meet its commitment to Caltrain, which would enable Caltrain’s operating funding to continue to support current service.   Supporting SamTrans was one of the top recommendations according to a recent online forum. The Supervisors will hold a hearing about the proposed transportation investments on July 9. We will post again before that meeting.

Caltrain is planning to increase the cost of parking at a stations from $4 to $5 daily.  According to Caltrain’s last study in 2008, only 27% of Caltrain riders drive and park at the station, so this is affects a minority of riders.  Compared to the cost of parking all day in some city parking facilities, the Caltrain lot is still a bargain (it costs $16 to park all day in Palo Alto, and $10 in Menlo Park).

While the 2014 operating budget is uneventful, there is a risk to this year’s capital budget, particularly train car maintenance.  SamTrans is the main source of risk in the operating budget, San Francisco/Muni is the source of risk in the capital budget. Caltrain is asking $4.8 million from each partner for capital projects.  To meet its contribution level, San Francisco would need to advance money from its Measure K funds.   If this doesn’t happen, Caltrain will continue to skimp on train car maintenance.  Reduced maintenance of aging train sets has been contributing to Caltrain’s recent reliability issues caused by mechanical breakdowns.

San Francisco is currently studying a range of measures to keep up its contributions to Caltrain. Ridership in San Francisco went up 11% last year in proportion to overall ridership increase. Caltrain is an integral piece of transportation system serving SOMA, Mission Bay, the Giants and soon the Warriors, and reliance on Caltrain will increase as there is more development in the surrounding area.  Watch for public meetings on San Francisco’s plans to support Caltrain in the next few months.

Is year by year nail-biting a good way to fund the transit backbone for San Francisco and Silicon Valley?  Obviously not.  Even if SamTrans’ financial crisis is alleviated and San Francisco gains additional funding, the system is fundamentally unstable.  Caltrain still needs stable funding.