MTC modelling assumes fares are fixed, so it seems more equitable to spend billions to replicate Caltrain

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is in the middle of its four-year ritual of collecting project proposals from agencies and cities, and scoring them in a process that will choose which projects are eligible for funding that flows through the MTC, which allocates regional funding, and also some sources of federal and state funds. 

The way that the scoring is done has some upside-down consequences that reveal some of the unfairness and inefficiency of our public transportation system.

One dramatic example is the comparison between the proposal to expand Caltrain capacity to meet pent-up demand to carry over a quarter million riders, and an idea put forward by VTA to build a segment of BART replicating Caltrain between Millbrae and Santa Clara.

As you can see from the chart (cropped from the MTC presentation linked here), the BART project is scored as positive for social equity, while the Caltrain project is scored as negative for social equity.

Note that the projects would serve the same territory. So the difference between the projects has got to be the fare structures, where Caltrain is currently more expensive to ride than BART.  We asked Anup Tapase, the MTC staff member who presented the scoring results at a TransForm Connecting Communities event, and he confirmed that this is the difference in equity scores.

Also note that running BART up the Peninsula Corridor to replicate Caltrain is tremendously expensive, with a price tag of $40 Billion for 30 miles.  The Caltrain project – which also builds in the cost of full grade separation and support for High Speed Rail passing tracks – is $37 billion for 50 miles. 

It would be dramatically cheaper to just fix Caltrain fares

Currently, taking Caltrain from Millbrae to the last stop in San Francisco costs $6.00 and taking BART from Millbrae to Embarcadero is 5.25, a difference of 12.5%.  Caltrain’s businiess plan estimates that the service will cost about $100 million per year in public funding in 2040, supporting much more frequent service. In 2040, it would cost $40 million per year to reduce fares by 15%.  Even if Caltrain’s operating costs jumped to the 2040 level next year, it would cost less than $1 billion to set Caltrain fares to match BART. If the goal is improving equity, it would be much cheaper to fix Caltrain fares than to replace Caltrain with BART.

Next step: fix fares?

This year’s MTC scoring contest has some improvements over previous years – instead of asking proponents of poorly-scoring projects to plead their case, MTC is going back and asking for improvements to the projects.  So logical solution would be to go back with a proposal that had more moderate fares, that served a greater diversity of riders. But the solution isn’t just for Caltrain, it’s for the Bay Area’s transit system.

A systemic problem with a segregated system

One of the observations in MTC’s analysis is that “High-cost commuter rail projects have mixed performance outcomes, predominantly benefiting higher-income groups.” Their conclusion is that “rail projects should be evaluated alongside lower-cost bus improvements. Such projects should be paired with complementary strategies to ensure that all Bay Area residents benefit from them.”

In concluding that rail systems with high fares mostly benefit high income groups, the analysis is presuming its own conclusion! 

The same logical problem can be seen in a bus example, where MTC is in the process of scoring “REX”, a freeway-running express bus network proposed by TransForm.  The fares for the service are being set at $4.50 per trip. While the results of the scoring are expected out later in the year, we’re guessing that it will score more equitably than rail services on similar corridors – because the price is being set to be affordable from the start.

If you design a system to have bus services with low fares and rail services with high fares, you will get a segregated system where low-income people use the bus and high-income people use the train.

Watch for scoring of fare integration

The MTC is still working on scoring proposals for an integrated fare system. While the results haven’t been published, MTC has previewed the conclusion it is finding “Transit fare reforms could meaningfully change travel behavior. Reforming the Bay Area’s complex fare systems could significantly grow ridership. However, this strategy must be paired with service and capacity increases to accommodate the robust growth in demand.”   

Stay tuned for those results. The fare fixes are probably not just opportunities for Caltrain, but for increasing ridership and equitable access to transportation for the Bay Area as a whole.