According to a report in The Daily Journal, Caltrain officials are projecting a long road to recovery from the financial blow dealt by COVID-19, and recently even floated the possibility of a system-wide shutdown if new revenue sources are not secured—even after the economy is reopened.
SamTrans, the other public transit agency serving San Mateo County, has also been significantly affected by COVID-19, but not to the extent of Caltrain, officials said at a recent meeting. That’s mainly because Caltrain is uniquely dependent on riders—fares and parking fees cover 75% of the agency’s operating costs, the largest percentage of any transit agency in the nation—and ridership is down 98% since the outbreak of the virus, according to the report.
Unlike SamTrans riders, who are largely dependent on the service, most Caltrain riders choose to take the train. Officials expect fears of contracting COVID-19 to keep many of them away for the foreseeable future and social distancing guidelines will likely limit the number of passengers per train anyway.
The report notes that Caltrain was already in precarious financial footing before COVID-19, and now the outlook is far worse. The agency is facing a budget deficit of more than $80 million through fiscal year 2021 if current conditions persist, but it’s also getting a significant amount of federal relief funding.
“The status quo is not acceptable,” said General Manager Jim Hartnett at the meeting. “The search for external funds in addition to other adjustments is going to be a very serious effort.”
“We’re somewhat a victim of our success in being such a fare box-driven entity,” said Board Member Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor.
“It’s likely we’ll be in a situation that’s far from normal for a considerable amount of time,” said Sebastian Petty, Caltrain’s director of policy development. “We’ll likely see very depressed ridership and we’ll be operating in a mode that’s deeply abnormal.”