Caltrain had planned to use fare increases to help pay for a regional means-based fare program. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Caltrain won’t increase fares before end of fiscal year

Planned price hikes suspended to help essential workers who rely on transit

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board voted unanimously last Thursday to suspend planned fare increases for Caltrain through the end of this fiscal year, at least.

Though the agency faces a $18.5 million shortfall, foregoing the increase will help ensure the rail remains accessible to the 3,500 daily riders who continue to rely on Caltrain, staff told board members. Most are essential workers and transit-dependent individuals who have no other way to make the Peninsula trek.

Fare changes, approved by the Joint Powers Board in September, were to come in two waves: first a reduction in Clipper Card discounts, then an increase to base fares.

Starting April 1, discounts for one-way fares and monthly passes on the Clipper Card would have dropped by 30 cents. In July, the base fare was going to increase by 50 cents followed by planned price hikes over the subsequent four years.

The fare increases were expected to generate $25 million over the next three years, a significant amount for an agency that has no dedicated funding source of its own.

Caltrain currently relies on the farebox and annual contributions from the three counties it serves to make its budget. Measure RR, a controversial 1/8-cent sales tax that will be on the ballot for voters in November, would create an additional independent revenue stream.

Staff planned to use the $25 million to fund Caltrain’s participation in the Clipper START program, a regional means-based fare pilot, as well as support operating expenses, according to a press release from March.

Executive Director Jim Hartnett decided to temporarily suspend the price hikes after shelter-in-place in order to reduce the impact of widespread job loss and economic hurt on riders, but he needed the board’s authorization to extend it through the fiscal year.

Board members also opted to defer approving a budget for the entire fiscal year. Staff will instead propose a second quarter budget for board approval at the Oct. 1 meeting.

Any plans to balance the looming budget deficit will prioritize providing reliable, high-quality service to Caltrain’s most vulnerable riders, staff said, as well as creative ways to generate additional funding.

The agency has already moved to provide low-income riders with a 50 percent discounted fare.

Thursday, the Joint Powers Board adopted the system’s first Framework for Equity, Connectivity, Recovery and Growth, which formalizes its commitment to a future for Caltrain that “expands access to low-income individuals and communities of color that have historically been underrepresented in the system’s ridership.”

It includes plans to support off-peak service that assists shift workers, the option to move toward regionally coordinated fare and transfer policies and improve timetables and connections with other regional transit systems.

However, staff also cautioned the Joint Powers Board that without additional revenue, not only will these equity polices be rendered impossible, all rail service will at risk of shutting down to riders.

The cost of a 12-month shutdown is estimated to be at over $60 million, staff said, and it would take more than one year to restart service after the fact, costing an additional $93 million in remobilization and retraining of staff.

“Any shutdown of the service would be the most inequitable consequence possible for all riders who depend on this critical service,” Caltrain Board Chair Dave Pine said in a statement.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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