VTA reluctance to pay Caltrain bill sets off cascading problems with fares, maintenance, bike security

This budget cycle, VTA’s reluctance to pay its Caltrain bill is triggering cascading problems. Read on for what’s happening and click here to take action now.

Caltrain’s surprise premature proposed fare increase – put together in a hurry to fill an operating budget gap, rather than crafted based on results of a fare study considering revenue, ridership and equity goals – is triggering pushback among Caltrain’s major business customers and everyday riders, and risking a ridership drop.

Proposed cuts to maintenance of aging, failure-prone equipment risks a coming year of breakdowns and passenger delays. The proposed elimination of funding for bike parking  would breaks promises to the ~15% of Caltrain customers who use bikes for first and last mile connections, to reduce the risk of being denied service (bike bumps) and improve bike security.


These cascading problems are triggered by VTA’s reluctance to pay its annual Caltrain bills. According to the agreement among the 3 county partners (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authorities), when one partner cuts back on paying its fair share, all the other partners cut back proportionately, tripling the impact on Caltrain’s budget.

For Santa Clara County residents and stakeholders who supported Measure B in part because of a strong Caltrain package, the VTA reluctance to pay its Caltrain bill is especially dismaying. When VTA was putting together the package of Caltrain improvements for Measure B, they checked with a variety of stakeholders including cities, business groups, transit groups such as Friends of Caltrain, and Caltrain the agency about what should go into the measure.

One of the questions that came up in Measure B planning was whether VTA should set money aside to ensure that it can pay its annual Caltrain bills. At the time, VTA staff said that VTA had paid its bills reliably for many years, and can be expected to continue to pay its bills, so this step would be unnecessary, and Measure B money could be used for other purposes, including future capacity increases (longer trains), grade separations, and increased service to South County.

Now, the first budget year after Measure B passed, VTA is experiencing budget challenges due to a big ridership drop, and as a consequence is reluctant to pay it’s Caltrain bill, setting off a cascade of problems since one partner’s budget cutbacks are effectively multiplied by 3.

In response, VTA observes that the level of partner contributions to Caltrain has been steady for several years. After SamTrans had its financial crisis (when Caltrain’s budget gap was filled with other temporary stopgap funding sources), the contribution from partner agencies was lower. VTA’s contends recent budget years with lower partner contributions (made up with temporary funding sources) reflect a “new normal”, and partners should no longer expect to pay contributions similar to the earlier level. But this year, SamTrans and San Francisco are able and willing to pay their bill – only VTA is seeking to cut its contribution.

Caltrain’s proposed operating budget did go up 3% over last year, to $151 million, an increase of $4.6 million over the FY2017 Budget.


This type of problem has happened more than once before. In 2010/11, it was SamTrans that couldn’t pay its bill. The triple reduction cut a gaping hole in Caltrain’s operating budget and Caltrain proposed to cut service by nearly 50%, which would have had catastrophic impacts on the usefulness and ridership of the service. At that time, the community of Caltrain riders and supporters banded together and demanded a better solution. The transit agencies and MTC found short-term workarounds. Eventually, SamTrans shored up its budget and is now able to pay its bill.

In 2012, San Francisco had trouble paying its capital bill. The resulting cutbacks in maintenance led to greater equipment breakdowns and rider delays.

This is an absolutely crazy way to run a critical piece of the infrastructure needed every day to keep Silicon Valley’s economy moving.

And responding to a budget hole with an emergency fare increase designed to raise quick cash, rather than updating fares deliberately based on current business and policy goals, is a recipe to lose confidence among important institutional customers and voters who are needed on an ongoing basis for support to fix Caltrain’s structural budget challenges and to continue on the path to major infrastructure and service improvements.

We don’t know exactly how this year’s issue can be fixed.

  • Given the assurances it made to stakeholders and voters, VTA should look harder at its finances to come up with funding to keep its commitments.
  • All the partners should look at the destructive “triple threat” agreement that triggers cascading budget crises on a regular but unpredictable basis, and come up with a solution that is less destructive when one partner has budget challenges.
  • Caltrain should postpone its fare changes until after the board has had an opportunity to consider the results of the fare study. GoPass increases, which are likely warranted, perhaps should be phased in to allow customers to adapt – similar to the way that VTA is phasing in increases to its EcoPass over multiple years.

What you can do now

If you are a Caltrain user or supporter, click here send a note to the Caltrain board and VTA board urging them to work together on a solution that meets core budget requirements like maintenance of aging equipment, allows fare changes to be done in orderly fashion.

If you are a Santa Clara County resident, let the board know if you are disappointed about this surprise cutback after assurances in Measure B planning that VTA would pay its bills. If you live in another county, tell the board that you want the county transit agencies to work together to craft a short and long-term solution to this year’s budget problem and Caltrain’s structural budget problem.

If you use a bike with Caltrain or appreciate steps to relieve crowding, urge the board to prevent cuts to the bike parking program.

If you can, come to the upcoming board meetings.

* SMCTA board meets tomorrow, May 23 10am at San Francisco City Hall.

* Caltrain’s board meeting is  Thursday, June 1, 10am, 1250 San Carlos Ave in San Carlos.

* VTA’s next board meeting is Thursday June 1 at 5:30pm, at the County building at 70 West Hedding Street in San Jose.