Courtesy South San FranciscoA new Caltrain station in South San Francisco is scheduled to be ready in 2019.

Caltrain, SamTrans seek funding solutions as ridership recovers

Amid a recovering regional economy and growing ridership, Caltrain and SamTrans continue to warn of ongoing financial challenges, according to a recent progress report.

Both transit agencies suffer from an ongoing “structural” financial challenge because neither has a dedicated funding source and they must juggle an ever-changing combination of government funding sources, rider fares and other funding sources, Michael Scanlon, executive director of the two agencies, wrote in the report.

“Transportation funding from local, state and federal sources is complex and can be limited,” he said.

For example, Caltrain’s chief method of generating revenue — fares, which are projected to rake in $66.1 million in 2014 — accounts for only about 50 percent of the total operating budget, the amount of funding required to keep trains running on time. The majority of the budget’s other half is made up of grants and contributions from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and SamTrans, with a small portion coming from parking and shuttle revenue.

SamTrans is expected to contribute about $5.4 million to Caltrain’s operating budget in 2014.

But unlike Caltrain, SamTrans ridership remains depressed after taking a hit from the 2008 recession, where passenger numbers declined or remained relatively flat annually until very recently, Scanlon wrote in the report.

SamTrans appears to suffer a much wider funding gap, receiving only 6.9 percent, or $8.54 million, of its annual funding from fares. The vast majority of the agency’s operating budget — about 80 percent — is from federal, state and local grants, according to SamTrans documents. About $2 million of the current $123.8 million operating budget is from advertising and investment income.

To tackle the issue, SamTrans completed a two-year study of its entire system, and it has begun making adjustments to its routes and service times — most notably, recent changes to the 390- and 391-El Camino Real routes. The new consolidated ECR line offers more frequent service and less complicated scheduling, said agency spokeswoman Christine Dunn.

Despite some long-term financial questions, Caltrain’s 2013 ridership has been at an all-time high — averaging 54,989 boardings on a weekday — with many commute-hour trains reaching capacity. This marks a 13 percent increase from the prior year.

The swelling ridership includes a “nationwide” record number of commuters who also transport their bicycles on Caltrain, said Dunn.

Caltrain’s electrified service is expected to begin in 2019 as part of its modernization program, which aims to offer more frequent service to “more people in more places,” the report said.

The annual progress report also highlighted social media’s growing role in communicating with riders, suggesting that tech-savvy customers have “embraced” the agency’s multiplatform approach to digital outreach.

“It’s new for us, and since we’ve started to do more of it, we’ve seen our numbers grow,” Dunn said. “Social media is a useful avenue to communicate with riders.”

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