Thursday: Caltrain Board reviews strategic plan goals to meet the region’s capacity needs, balance ridership and revenue

On Thursday, the Caltrain board will review the draft strategic plan which will guide the system for the next decide.

The draft plan includes several goals related to capacity that will need to be closely linked together, and will require leadership by Caltrain and stakeholders to define effectively and to implement.

Also, the draft Strategic Plan includes goals for ridership, environmental sustainability, social equity, and revenue that could be in tension. This will require regional attention over time to balance these competing goals.

Capacity opportunities and challenges

As ridership continues to grow, trains have been getting crowded. Cities and employers whose dependence on Caltrain is increasing are concerned about whether Caltrain will continue to meet the growing capacity needs.

The good news is that the Caltrain strategic plan includes several statements that, if closely linked together, could help Caltrain meet the region’s growing needs for sustainable transportation and congestion relief.

  • Grow and manage customer demand with expanded and enhanced service; meet current and future mobility needs.
  • Expand capacity with timely investments
  • Encourage transit-supportive development at and around stations
  • Improve connectivity to local and regional transportation systems

As the statements imply, it is not enough for Caltrain to set a goal to increase ridership.  Caltrain’s ridership goal needs to be be driven by the needs of customers and stakeholders, including:

  • Cities including San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose that have set goals for greater use of transit and lower levels of driving.
  • Caltrain’s future capacity is particularly important for cities that are adding development near transit stations and depend on transit service for these areas to function without gridlock
  • Employers such as Google and Palantir which depend on Caltrain to serve employees who increasingly prefer not to commute by car
  • Regional stakeholders – Counties and the MTC, with goals to reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion

As Caltrain takes the Strategic Plan from a set of high level statements to a set of more concrete objectives, it will be important to quantify and implement the linkages between these high level goals

  • Caltrain electrification needs to stay funded
  • Capital improvements which enable greater capacity and foster ridership should be assessed in terms of their ability to achieve these goals
  • These improvements include platform improvements to enable longer trains and level boarding, full electrification to San Francisco, the downtown Extension to Transbay, and grade separations which enable more reliability and eventually faster service.
  • Caltrain will need to partner with cities, employers and regional stakeholders to quantify  the expected future increases in capacity need
  • In the long run, Caltrain will need to partner with the High Speed Rail authority to ensure that capacity on long distance trains is used for Peninsula corridor travel, as indicated in the latest High Speed Rail business plan

One intriguing statement in the chart includes “balancing service and amenities to address different travel markets.”  This could conceivably include working with other service providers and travel modes, including express bus service on El Camino and on the freeways, to address an overall goal to reduce driving in the 3-county Peninsula Corridor.  The challenge today is that there is no entity with the responsibility to manage travel demand and mode share on the corridor.

One option is to ignore the problem and deal with continuing congestion issues and piecemeal approaches to meeting transportation needs. Another option is for an entity to step up – the Grand Boulevard Initiative? The Peninsula Joint Powers Board?  Some other entity? To take responsibility for regional corridor travel.

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Tension between revenue, ridership and equity goals

The draft Strategic Plan includes a goal to “maximize revenue” which could be in tension with its goals for customer growth, environmental sustainability, social equity, and revenue that could be in tension.

As international rail consultant and High Speed Rail Peer Review Board member Lou Thompson observed at a Friends of Caltrain event in February, Caltrain charges less per passenger-mile than some other services, which suggests it could raise fares.

However, stakeholders including cities and employers want to see more people using the train, and less driving which generates congestion, pollution, and demand for costly parking.  If Caltrain raised fares, this could conceivably limit rider demand.  This would reduce the burden on Caltrain capacity, but increase the burden on local traffic and parking, and regional pollution.

Another challenge is social equity.  Caltrain ridership tends to be relatively high income, and riders of SamTrans and VTA tend to be lower income.   The class-based stereotype is that rich people like trains and poor people like buses – well, of course, unless the buses are tall and white, and travel to Google, Facebook and Apple.  Or perhaps, just maybe, lower income people like services that they can afford, and wealthier people demand services that is competitive with driving.

In the Bay Area, anecdotally, many lower-income workers drive to work, because the cash cost of driving is cheaper than Caltrain.  Unfortunately, this situation does not is not considered an impact under federal law, because federal law requires analysis of changes to existing service – not the inequities of the services that already exist.

One opportunity that Caltrain is already pursuing is an increase in the price of GoPass. This bulk-purchase program provides a 90% per-rider discount for organizations – employers or residential developments – that purchase a Caltrain pass for all users.  The use of GoPass often causes Caltrain ridership to spike, and organizations that use it are still getting a great deal.  Increasing the price for organizations can improve equity while improving Caltrain’s revenue.

With a price structure that does a better job of recovering costs, Caltrain and the region would also benefit from expanding the use of the Go Pass. Caltrain has already expanded the GoPass to cover large residential developments.  The region is seeing growing use of Transportation Management Associations which provide incentives to reduce driving, similar to the effective programs provided by major employers, to pools of smaller organizations and residences within cities, for example downtown Palo Alto and the City of San Mateo Rail Corridor.

With management by the TMA, Caltrain should expand the use of GoPass to pools of users served by the TMA.  This would increase equity. Caltrain discounts would be available to more people, not just those lucky enough to work for the largest employers. It would increase ridership, reduce parking and traffic burdens, and help reduce opposition to transit-oriented development that is due to fear of traffic.

Caltrain should strive to increase revenue, but not at the cost of the region’s environmental goals. Electrification will make Caltrain more cost-effective to run, improving opportunities to balance its goals for equity, ridership, and revenue.  Riders and stakeholders will need to pay attention over time to balance these competing goals.

Some argue that Caltrain should focus primarily on the improving the financial returns of the agency.  But in a world where Caltrain covers about 60% of its cost with fares, and freeways cover less than 50% of their costs via gas taxes, it is heading in the wrong direction to change public policy to favor even greater subsidies for driving, given the impacts of congestion and pollution.

What do you think about the goals and principles for Caltrain’s draft strategic plan?.