An Example of How Success Becomes A “Crisis”   Leave a comment

The administrative state is having trouble with change. It can’t accept that it might not be needed. An example is Caltrain, the Bay Area’s nearly 150-year-old commuter railroad.

It’s thriving … in a way. Trains are carrying record crowds, packed to capacity in the morning and evening commutes, and generating unprecedented revenues. Ridership has increased 11% in each of the last three years. Trains provide an average of 47,062 rides each weekday on 92 trains. Some trains regularly operate at 130% of capacity. People actually have to stand.

“We’re almost on the verge of being overwhelmed,” Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said. “We could not have anticipated this kind of growth.”

Caltrain is considering buying more railcars to expand service. They can’t add more trains to the commute period, so they’re promoting trains just before and after that peak period and perhaps adding cars to the most-crowded trains.

“We’re worried that if it gets too crowded, we could start losing customers,” Simon said.

Along with the extra riders, Caltrain is also seeing higher-than-anticipated revenues from fares. This year, Simon said, the agency expects to collect about $6 million more than budgeted. The railroad’s budget for the 2014 budget year, which starts July 1, is not only balanced but shows a 7% increase over the current spending plan.

Caltrain depends on voluntary funding from other transit agencies – and those agencies don’t have money to spare.

So what’s the problem? Why the fear of the 2015 budget year? Unlike most of the 27 other transit agencies in the Bay Area, Caltrain lacks a dedicated source of funding such as a property tax, parcel tax or sales tax.

Instead, the commuter railroad relies on voluntary funding from the transit agencies in the three counties it serves: San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. And like most transit agencies, Muni, SamTrans and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have their own problems, leaving them unable or unwilling to give more money to Caltrain.

Caltrain Zone MapIn 2011, with all three agencies reducing their contributions, Caltrain warned that it would have to slash service, running trains only during weekday commuter periods and curtailing trains to Gilroy, which I gather is a long haul away from the metropolitan area. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning and financing agency, helped craft a bailout deal with a variety of one-time funds, including deferred bus and train replacements in San Mateo County and an overdue payment from Santa Clara County for the purchase of the railroad right of way.

This bought Caltrain time to come up with a stable funding source. They polled voters in the three counties and found support, but not enough to expect a tax measure to pass. Now the agency is looking at a San Mateo County general services tax, cap-and-trade money from the State of California, or legislation that would lower the threshold for passing tax measures.

Electrification plans, now fully funded with $700 million from the high-speed rail bond, will help cut costs and increase capacity, but Caltrain says it’s too little too late.

“We recognize that a lot of people will think we’re crying wolf,” he said. “But the problems are real. It’s going to take a concerted effort by a lot of people to get it done.”

Can I suggest the obvious?

Why not increase train fares to cover the shortfall? Two-way day passes from San Francisco to Gilroy (about 158 miles round-trip or 3160 miles a month) are only $28.00 (18 cents a mile) or $338.00 a month (9 cents a mile). The day pass is probably affordable, but the monthly pass is subsidizing the rider by quite a bit.

This is something a private entity would figure out without being told, but the administrative state can’t see a solution that doesn’t involve raising taxes on people who often times don’t ride the train.

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