Caltrain is in the midst of a stunning yet totally unsurprising (to rail advocates at least) surge in ridership that began nearly ten years ago. Yet the agency might still be forced to cut service because it doesn’t have a dedicated funding source to support operations. Such is the madness of transportation funding in California.
Take a look at that chart. The growth is stunning. Caltrain ridership has doubled since 2004. The recession in 2009 was but a short dip in the strong upward trend. Ridership has grown by 5,000 in the last 12 months alone. Caltrain is clearly a big success.
But as NBC Bay Area reports, that doesn’t help its financial woes:
So with fare revenues flowing in at historic levels and ridership showing no signs of slowing down, it might come as a surprise that Caltrain is actually fretting how it will pay for its 2015 budget, with a projected shortfall of $17 to $19 million staring administrators in the face.
How to explain this apparent contradiction?
“Caltrain is one of the only transportation agencies in the Bay Area that lacks a dedicated funding source,” observed Jayme Ackemann, spokesperson for both Caltrain and its managing agency, the San Mateo County Transit District.
“The fare revenue covers about 60 percent of our budget, which is a significant amount,” said Ackemann. “But it doesn’t cover the entire budget. And that 40 percent hole, roughly, that we’re looking at is the part of our budget that’s difficult to fill every year.”
Caltrain basically has to cobble together a budget every year by doing the governmental equivalent of lifting the couch cushions and going hat in hand to the partner agencies, who have their own money woes. At least Muni and VTA, for example, have their own dedicated revenue sources. Caltrain doesn’t and that is why service might have to be cut even as ridership soars.
Rod Diridon has a two-pronged solution:
His suggestions are two-fold: Have the Joint Powers Board member agencies make more of a financial commitment, and/or implement a new tax with the approval of voters.
“I think if we told the public what it was going to buy and what the advantages are, they would approve it,” said Diridon. “We’re in a remarkable area in California where the people do really understand how transportation and the economy work,” he added.
The polling suggests otherwise, however, according to Ackemann.
When Caltrain studied the likelihood of passage for such a tax in each of the participating counties, it found that San Francisco would likely come just short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass the measure (60% approval), San Mateo would barely clear the threshold, and Santa Clara would come nowhere close to passage.
It would help if the state legislature would put an initiative on the ballot to lower the threshold for transportation taxes to 50%+1 as has been discussed. And Caltrain could seek revenue from just one of those counties (San Francisco, obviously) but that might not be a sustainable solution either.
My initial thought on reading this article was to suggest a regional solution. Other Bay Area transit systems need revenue too in order to sustain and expand operations, whether they’re primarily bus or rail agencies. A regional transit tax of sufficient size could generate enough revenue for Caltrain and the other agencies through a higher gas tax or some other method. The politics of getting nine counties, dozens of cities, and numerous transit agencies to agree AND to ensure that Caltrain gets enough money would be difficult, to say the least. But it’s a solution worth exploring.
But then I realized that other agencies around the state are facing similar woes. For those that aren’t, more funding is still needed to expand service. That suggests to me that this is really a statewide problem that needs a statewide solution.
Last year SPUR put out a plan that showed how California could fund high speed rail on its own. SPUR’s plan combines a variety of new revenue sources to generate $2.7 billion a year for HSR. Increase the size of some of those revenue sources – a higher statewide gas tax, for example – and you would have money available to support existing and future operations at Caltrain and other agencies.
The last statewide gas tax increase came in 1990 and was approved by voters. Whether it’s a gas tax or some combination of it and other revenues, it’s time for the state to step up and take a bigger role in funding rail and other transit operations. California’s streets and freeways are jammed with traffic. Buses and trains are popular with the public where available. Just look at Caltrain’s huge ridership gains and you’ll see there is a lot of demand for more transit and rail service.
For the sake of California’s economy and its ability to address the climate crisis, more rail service is needed. Rather than force each agency to fend for itself, sometimes competing against each other or against other local transit agencies, and instead of asking each region to hammer out a solution, the state itself needs to help provide the answer. The 2016 ballot with its high presidential turnout is less than three years away. Now’s the time to start thinking big.