Thursday, 10/4 – Caltrain board sets fare policy strategic direction

Also at its board meeting on Thursday, October 4, the Caltrain board is being asked to give input on a set of principles to shape fare policy between now and the 2022 start of electric service.

The conversation is framed in terms of a set of principles that could potentially be in tension, including;

  • Financial Sustainability
  • Customer Experience
  • Equity
  • Ridership

Considering the latest information from the Caltrain business plan, the relationships between these factors is likely to be different in the short term and the long term.

Caltrain’s fare study has shown clearly that the fare structure has equity problems.  Low-income riders pay more per trip than higher-income riders. 


Short term win-win options

In the short term there are fare changes that could likely improve equity and increase ridership.  Currently, the GoPass excludes contract workers at major employment sites, and workers in areas covered by Transportation Management Associations that provide transportation benefits to employees of smaller companies, including restaurants and retailers. Caltrain could modify the GoPass program to include these blocks of commuters, which would increase ridership and revenue.

In the short term, even supporting the regional means-based fare pilot, with a 20% discount for passengers with household income under $50,000,  might not negatively impact Caltrain’s finances, if Caltrain participates in the pilot and doesn’t change its schedule. There are so few low-income people who use Caltrain today that the number of people who’d pay less than they’re paying is small, and incremental riders might provide a net positive amount or revenue.

Long-term strategies – ridership growth and regional coordination 

In the longer term, Caltrain’s analysis shows that making BART-like service choices would be likely to lead to BART-like ridership, with up to 250,000 riders by 2040.  International best practices suggest that choices aimed at increasing ridership are likely to improve financial outcomes. Caltrain’s business modeling for the age of electrification should model the likely results from a service pattern enabling higher ridership combined with a fare structure to enable higher ridership. This might, for example, mean fewer passes and more everyday low fares with fare caps that help budget-sensitive frequent riders.

In the longer term, the decisions likely to lead to higher ridership include more mid-day, evening, and weekend service for a wider range of trip types.  The current zone-based structure is biased against short trips that cross zone boundaries, and distance-based fares would be a better fit.

Also, in the longer term, customer experiences would be substantially improved by streamlined multi-agency fares. This would help individuals – there’s no reason I should pay different fares if I go to the same place in the East Bay using different routes with some combination of Caltrain, BART, Muni, VTA, and AC Transit.   And this would help institutional customers – there’s no reason a residential development should have to choose whether to give residents bus passes or train passes.

Caltrain can’t bring about regional fare integration on its own, for sure. But transit agencies have a lot of influence. The board’s direction to strongly support regional fare integration efforts will help, and that is a resolution worth making now. Especially since between now and 2022, the MTC and transit agencies will be working on Clipper 2.0, so setting that direction now can help outcomes for Clipper 2.0.