Caltrain declines Palo Alto request for downtown GoPass

As Palo Alto gets started with its transportation demand management programs, with a proposal to launch major initiatives scheduled for City Council review on Monday night, they are taking a classic and straightforward standalone first step – offering the Caltrain GoPass to City employees who turn in their parking pass. Palo Alto’s request to Caltrain was actually much more ambitious, seeking GoPasses for the downtown area – but Caltrain turned them down. Hopefully Palo Alto and other area cities developing Transportation Management Associations will persist in encouraging Caltrain to adapt the GoPass program to this new and promising type of customer demand.

The GoPass proposal is part of a plan set in motion nearly a year ago. The existing GoPass program has the potential to be very beneficial for the City of Palo Alto as an employer, as the staff report explains. The GoPass offers a strikingly low rate of $165 per employee per year – as long as the employer buys GoPasses for 100% of employees, and pays a minimum of $13,750 per year. The employee can then use the GoPass for unlimited travel on Caltrain, including nights and weekends, Giants and Sharks games, dinner and a movie in downtown San Mateo, etc. By contrast, a 3-zone monthly pass (not annual) is $179. The initial counterintuitive factor with this program is that most employers don’t have 100% of their employees living near the Caltrain corridor. A GoPass is not very useful for an employee who lives in Fremont. But a common experience among organizational GoPass customers is that enough employees have access to Caltrain, and the subsidized transit access is enough to greatly increase usage, resulting in a higher share of transit use and a lower share of driving to work than without the program.

Stanford University, which offers the GoPass to its employees, has a 24% Caltrain mode share, and SurveyMonkey has a 50% Caltrain mode share, and SRI in nearby Menlo Park has a 15% Caltrain mode share.

Reducing city employee driving is particularly helpful in Palo Alto, which faces a parking crunch. Building new parking spaces will cost the city $50,000 to $60,000 each, so if a few more Palo Alto employees decide not to take a parking pass, the program is a big financial benefit to the city, not even considering the traffic reduction.

But Palo Alto didn’t just apply to participate in Caltrain’s standard GoPass program, they made another, more innovative request. On Monday night, Palo Alto City Council will review a major proposal to create a “Transportation Management Association” which will manage transportation programs such as shuttles, carshare, rideshare, and other transportation benefits for people who live and/or work in Palo Alto. Palo Alto staff asked Caltrain whether they would provide a GoPass for the downtown area.

Caltrain turned the request down, according to the city staff report. Caltrain gave two reasons. The first is that Caltrain has been experiencing a capacity crunch, and Palo Alto is one of the places where space is particularly tight. The other objection was a “concern of providing equitable programs with active participating companies.”

Some good news on the capacity issue – since Caltrain first turned Palo Alto down, Caltrain is putting in an offer to buy surplus rail cars from Metrolink, a measure that promises to add 20% more capacity. Hopefully that would create enough space for some additional Palo Alto riders.

As for the issue of providing “equitable programs”, there might be logical ways to address that concern as well. The requirement to buy the GoPass based on 100% of the employee base helps give Caltrain solid revenue for the program. If the proposed downtown program allowed employers to “cherrypick”, that would be unfair to existing customers who use the GoPass with the 100% rule. One possible way around this issue would be to have Palo Alto employers participating in the Transportation Management Association decide whether the company would participate as a whole. Today, the GoPass is not cost-effective for small companies because of the minimum $13,500 price. But if the Palo Alto TMA could bundle a set of 5, 10, and 20 employee companies into a group with with a few hundred employees, each company could participate 100%, the pool would be large enough to make the GoPass program cost-effective, and incent higher overall transit ridership, and it would not be unfair to existing customers who need to purchase for 100% of employees. The Palo Alto TMA would be saving Caltrain administrative costs by handling the set of participants as a pool, and marketing the program to Palo Alto employers. This is one logical option, may well be other ways to provide a GoPass program for a TMA, in a way that would be fair for existing customers.

The big picture here is that Palo Alto is one of multiple cities on the Caltrain corridor that are starting to set up Transportation Management Associations with the goal of reducing vehicle trips (other cities include San Mateo, Menlo Park, Mountain View, and likely San Jose). The TMAs pool funds, and are intended to provide more robust transportation benefits than the individual participating employers or developments. In our region, many have become familiar with the robust transportation programs by large employers, which enable them to greatly reduce driving, traffic congestion, and parking costs. TMAs are intended to provide a similar set of benefits to a larger set of participants, beyond the region’s few top employers.

The TMAs have the potential to be a major source of new customers for Caltrain. As it works to alleviate the immediate capacity crunch, and plans for increasing capacity through electrification and complementary measures such as longer trains, Caltrain would benefit by welcoming the new source of ridership, and working to create programs that work for the agency and the institutional customers. If over time Caltrain needs help with measures to improve capacity, such as longer platforms for longer trainsets, it could also partner with the cities that depend on the added capacity.

Hopefully Palo Alto and other cities with TMA will keep asking, and Caltrain will come around to work with them to deliver solutions that help make transit a larger share of our region’s travel.