Despite passage of Measure RR, Caltrain still likely to face additional service cuts

Voters say ‘yes’ to sales tax to fund Peninsula commuter rail

Caltrain board members celebrated the passage of Measure RR Thursday, which ensures the transit agency will have its own dedicated source of funding.

But the celebration was fairly short-lived.

Before the meeting was over, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board was also presented with a proposal to reduce service as early as mid-December in order to cut costs and better meet persistently low demand from riders.

Measure RR levies a one-eighth cent sales tax on purchases made within the counties, excluding basic necessities such as groceries and medicine.

The measure needed the support of two-thirds of voters in each of the three member counties Caltrain serves. With the bulk of the ballots counted, it has received ‘yes’ votes from 74 percent of San Francisco county voters, 72 percent of San Mateo county voters and 70 percent of Santa Clara county voters.

‘Not a squeaker’

It’s expected to generate roughly $100 million every year specifically for Caltrain’s operations, a windfall for an agency that’s long battled for financial independence and relied overwhelmingly on unstable farebox revenue and contributions from the three member counties for the bulk of its operating budget.

“This victory was not a squeaker [..] it’s a wonderful testimony to what this organization has achieved and its potential going forward,” said Dave Pine, chair of the Joint Powers Board.

Board members took a beat at their meeting Thursday to revel in the success of their months-long effort to secure funding.

San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, who sits on the board, congratulated his colleagues and said the successful campaign was evidence of “all the great work we can do if we focus on the same page.”

“I appreciate everyone working through all the hard conversations to get to this point where we can successfully say we made history,” he said, a nod to a contentious debate over governance earlier this year that also kept a version of the ballot measure altogether.

Though the immediate threat of shutdown is, for the moment, allayed by the knowledge that Caltrain will start seeing revenue from the sales tax around September of next year, the agency still faces an estimated $18.5 million budget deficit for the second half of this fiscal year.

Sebastian Petty, Deputy Chief of Caltrain Planning, also reminded board members that fiscal year 2021-2022 would be “challenging,” even with Measure RR funds.

“It’s still a lean time for transit as a whole, he said.”

Service changes

Before the pandemic, Caltrain ran about 92 trains each weekday with roughly 65,000 daily riders.

The proposal heard by the board Thursday recommends a reduction in service to approximately 68 daily trains with two trains per hour in each direction. Both would run limited pattern routes, which means each runs a similar travel time end-to-end but the stop patterns “split the difference” between local and express with nine stations on each route.

Petty said staff recommends this approach because it allows for reliable 30-minute headways between each train, more easily links up Caltrain routes to other transit providers at connection points and more effectively balances passenger load to maintain social distancing.

This proposal actually provides roughly double the midday and late night service compared to pre-pandemic, when the bulk of Caltrain’s riders used the trains during peak commute hours as dictated by classic office hours.

Petty said Caltrain travelers during the pandemic have skewed much more heavily towards “folks of modest means” whose jobs buck corporate commuting trends because they’re working late night and early morning shifts at essential destinations.

Improving mid-day and other off-peak service will directly serve customers who need the system to work outside the traditional confines of a 9 to 5 job, Petty added.

Weekends, on the other hand, would see increased service under the proposal, also intended to better equip transit-dependent riders with a system that directly meets their needs.

Weekend riders

Petty said 17 percent of current ridership is coming on weekends, as compared to 6 percent pre-pandemic. He speculated this is “because the service is filling a need for essential workers who are working on the weekend and need regional access.”

Trains on the weekend would run hourly for a total of between 28 and 32 trains per day, representing a 50 percent bump from pre-pandemic levels.

The plan also suspends weekend bullet — or express — service. It’s intended to serve leisure travelers, according to Petty, which have all but disappeared.

“I want to emphasize this is not a forever decision,” Petty said. “In no way are we saying express trains are never coming back.”

Director Steve Heminger did express concern that 62 weekday trains will still far exceed the actual demand from riders, a concern that Petty sought to assuage by emphasizing how this plan allows the agency to adjust service levels up or down fairly nimbly as needed.

The board will vote on the proposed service changes in December, when staff will return with more detailed financial analysis and additional stakeholder feedback. Implementation of service changes approved would likely start as early as the middle of the month.

Petty also emphasized this is likely to be the first of a number of service changes needed to respond to the “dynamic” environment that’s resulted from the COVID-19 crisis.

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