Caltrain faces budget gap, considers means-based fares

At its board meeting on Thursday, May 3, the Caltrain board reviewed a draft budget with a $6.6 million deficit in operating budget and $15M gap in capital.  Caltrain will be working with its county partners to seek to close the gaps. (Search for “Preliminary Operating Budget” in this board packet.

Deferring maintenance

The solution proposed to close the gap in capital spending is deferring maintenance on aging diesel equipment.  At the board meeting, Caltrain operations head Michelle Bouchard explained how deferring equipment overhauls saves money in a given budget year, but costs more money to fix the components incrementally (that slide isn’t posted yet)


Last week, Caltrain was awarded a $164 million in funding from the SB1 gas tax to go toward longer trains and full fleet electrification, but this is a fraction of the $630 million request. Staff is working on how that partial funding would be used. 

Fare study update – increase fares to balance the budget? To fund low-income fares?

At the same meeting last Thursday the board got an update on its fare study and on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Means-Based Fare program

While Caltrain’s customer research shows that increasing fares is unlikely to lose many current riders, fare increases would increase the discrepancy where low-income riders pay higher fares than higher-income riders, and further lock out low-income riders who refrain from riding the train.

Given the inequities shown by the agency’s research,  Caltrain board members supported the concept of a means-based discount, but expressed reluctance to raise fares – and strong interest in pursuing dedicated funding to have more control over how to pay for the operating budget.

The next steps for the Caltrain board will be policy decisions – until now, Caltrain has not had policies relating to fares, and decisions have been made on a tactical basis.

Caltrain participation in MTC’s means-based fares proposal?

On Wednesday, MTC’s Programming and Allocations committee has is an important vote scheduled regarding the means-based fare proposal – to potentially move ahead with a pilot with up to 4 agencies including Caltrain – but requiring agencies to put up 50% of any revenue loss.

Given Caltrain’s challenges to close a budget gap, does it make sense for Caltrain to approve participation in a means-based fare program before there is funding available to pay for it?  A ballot measure to provide stable funding for Caltrain is being considered for 2020, but that leaves two budget years for ongoing budget wrangling.

Readers – if you wouldn’t qualify for a discount fare – would you be willing to pay an increased fare in order to pay for discounts for low-income riders?  Would you want to be asked?

What do you think about MTC’s Means-Based Fare proposal? Should Caltrain participate in the proposed first round in FY2020?  Share your thoughts with the MTC Programming and Allocations Committee, and feel free to copy us at