Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sign of the times

The fiscal swine-flu is continuing to spread throughout the Bay Area and beyond. A day after the Caltrain public meetings where riders overwhelmingly voiced opposition to the weekend train shutdown, the BART board approved a series of fare and parking fee increases to try to eliminate the $54 million budget shortfall.

BART already scheduled to increase its fares by next January to keep up with cost-of-living increases, but the drop in sales tax revenue has prompted the agency to increase the fares six months earlier in July.

Along with other fare increases, BART also raised its SFO fare surcharge from $1.50 to $4.00. That surcharge would apply to the fare between Millbrae and SFO, which charges only $1.50 since the opening of the line in 2003. It is ironic since BART once promised free train service between Millbrae and SFO, and the fact that it replaced the free shuttle between Caltrain and the airport.

Also on the table is to reduce the night and Sunday service from every 15 minutes to 20 minutes, which was the original frequency before the improvement last year. In addition, BART also plans to cut one of the two lines on the SFO extension on nights and weekends, which would restore direct service between the SFO and Millbrae.

A $4 airport premium may not be much for travelers, but it is quite a burden for employees working at the airport. Also, a $4 fare for one station ride between Millbrae and the airport is excessive. Fortunately Caltrain riders can transfer to SamTrans buses to the airport faster for less money.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Caltrain's ugly choices

Caltrain has scheduled three public meetings on possible service cuts and fare hikes:

  • -Increase one way fares by 25 cents base and/or per zone (the last time they raised fares was in January). Other fares will go up by the same proportion
  • -Increase Go Pass fees significantly (now is same as a two zone monthly pass. Caltrain proposes to be the same as a three zone pass).
  • -Increase parking fees
  • -Cut weekend service
  • -Cut midday service to hourly
  • -Cut Gilroy service

The meetings will take place at 6 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 at the following locations:

  • -San Francisco: 25 Van Ness Avenue, Lower Level Conference Room
  • -San Carlos: Caltrain Headquarters, Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave.
  • -San Jose: VTA Administrative Offices, Auditorium. 3331 North First Street
Cutting weekend service is the worst because there's no equivalent transit service for most cities. The prospect of having to travel on local buses like the 22 and the 390 is a very ugly one. For most people, weekend service is the way how they're introduced to Caltrain.

The Gilroy service, on the other hand, does have equivalent service through the Monterey-Salinas Transit's 55 and VTA's line 168. While it is not clear of what the current ridership trend is for the Gilroy train service, the ridership has been drastically reduced from the peak in 2000 with the first dot-com bust and the 101 freeway widening.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My commute thanks to SVLG

Transportation 4 America unveiled, a web site that allows riders to express their transit experience. This is an important year as Congress will be taking action on the next federal transportation bill, which would provide billions for various transportation projects.

Guess who is in favor of cutting Caltrain service? Of course SVLG. SVLG often implies that no other taxes other than for BART could pass, but people in the North Bay and in LA suggested otherwise. Not only SVLG has done nothing to address the short term and long term funding needs for Caltrain and other transit, SVLG in the past recommended to slash funding for Caltrain and paratransit. Both are all on the chopping block this year.

With the broken budget process and SVLG's influence on corporate tax cuts from Sacramento, things will have to get much worse before it gets better. The propositions (except Prop 1F) in the upcoming special election deserve to be defeated.

Monday, May 11, 2009

HSR Authority signs pact on Altamont

Last Thursday HSRA sign an agreement with the ACE Board (San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission) on the Altamont Corridor and the segment between Merced and Sacramento. According to the agreement, HSRA and ACE will plan for a joint-use (HSR and regional rail) infrastructure on the Altamont corridor. The planning work involved will also include a project-level EIR.

Even though both parties agree on the development of the corridor, like the agreement with Caltrain, did not specify the funding responsibilities. However, unlike the Caltrain corridor, HSR considers the Altamont Corridor to be the secondary corridor and there are does not have the priority for the Prop 1A and the stimulus funds. However, a complete plan and environmental clearance for the corridor could help make Altamont Corridor eligible for other transportation funds in the future.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Caltrain service is on the chopping block too

Caltrain is planning to declare fiscal emergency in June as the agency considers various measures to address the $10 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year. Measures include service reductions and fare increases.

Unlike VTA, Caltrain does not have dedicated funding. As a joint powers authority, Caltrain does not have the power to collect taxes. Its operating fund largely depends on the contributions from its three local transit agencies: Muni, SamTrans, and VTA. Since 2000, the 3 agencies have either kept its funding level frozen, or just increased it by 3% a year (at the time when the economy was better). Because of the state funding cut and drop in local taxes, the three agencies have agreed again to freeze the local funding level for next year. On the other hand, the contractual operating cost keeps rising.

In the previous years, Caltrain was able to use various one-time fundings to address the shortfalls. In 2004 and 2005, Caltrain increased its Baby Bullet service to enhance fare revenue. For the last few years, Caltrain was achieving double digit riderhip and fare revenue increases. This year the situation is not that fortunate. In March, Caltrain ridership essentially stayed flat compared to last year (fall by 0.3%). Caltrain staff believes the increasing unemployment in the region is beginning to impact ridership.

It seems that while High Speed Rail, Prop 1A, and the Stimulus Plan give Caltrain a bright future, the current state and local funding situation would hurt more riders in the short run. In the long run, Caltrain needs to have a different governance and funding structure so it can achieve funding stability and become more accountable to its riders. Unlike AC Transit and BART, for many Caltrain boardmembers, its role on Caltrain is actually their third job (first is the city council or county board they've been elected to serve, second is the local transit agency, and the third is Caltrain). And for some of the Caltrain members (like Ken Yeager), you have to wonder whether they want Caltrain to succeed, or that they are there to block Caltrain improvements.