Caltrain Board reviews budget, ridership growth

Written by Douglas John Bowen

Caltrain said Thursday its staff offered a preliminary report to the Joint Powers Board indicating the rail service's Fiscal Year 2014 budget will be balanced, but warning that FY15 could produce a budget shortfall that might trigger fare increases and service cuts.

Still, Caltrain Deputy CEO for Finance Gigi Harrington said that historic ridership growth, savings from prior budget years, and/or one-time-only stopgap funds could aid the agency in the years ahead.

Caltrain’s long-term financial future is hampered by the agency’s lack of dedicated funding, even as ridership demand continues to grow.

Recent expenditures, including stopgap funding, have been used to repay SamTrans the purchase of the rail right-of-way used by Caltrain. SamTrans has used that funding to cover its share of the operating deficit, which, in turn, has allowed Caltrain to maintain a robust level of service to meet the growing demand, Caltrain said. But those funds are exhausted, and Caltrain will need to either identify a new funding source or consider service reductions for FY15.

“Caltrain is vital to the rebounding economy of our region, and demand for the service has never been higher,” said Ken Yeager, chair of Caltrain’s Joint Powers Board. “These historic ridership levels look like they will remain on track, so there will be no fare increases or reduction in service levels in this year’s budget.”

Caltrain’s total proposed operating budget for FY14 is $120 million, up 7% over the previous year’s budget. Ridership has grown 11% each year for the past three years, and is nearly double the number of riders recorded in 2004.

High demand has resulted in service constraints during the peak-hour commute, with some trains reportedly operating at 130% of capacity.

“Caltrain is straining at the seams,” said Chuck Harvey, deputy CEO of operations, engineering and construction. “We need to look for ways to add capacity to the existing system to take some pressure off the most popular trains and to provide a more comfortable ride for our passengers.”

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