Caltrain’s Second Crisis in Two Years

In another stunning example of a government operated program drowning in red ink, Caltrain announced that it would begin considerations to reduce its $2.3 million budget shortfall on a budget of $99.8 million.

How would this affect Stanford? In the next two years, service to Stanford will not be cut because the Palo Alto stop is on the main line. Fares are guaranteed to increase and one can expect Caltrain to start charging extra fees, such as fares for bringing bicycles onboard.

However, how would Stanford be affected by a complete shutdown of Caltrain? Such a shutdown would mean less commuting, more cars on the road, and more difficulty reaching downtown San Francisco from campus. Students would have a more difficult time getting to San Francisco without the Caltrain and would have to rely on private transportation.

Caltrain’s financial woes are nothing new. Last fiscal year, Caltrain experienced a ‘fiscal emergency,’ a legal creation that permits the board to cut service and increase tolls and fares. Caltrain managed to fix a $2.6 million budget shortfall by cutting midday train service, increasing parking tolls, and reducing the number of trains in operation from 98 to 90.

A number of solutions to the problem, all involving differing combinations of fare increases and service cuts, have been proposed. A possible cessation of service to Gilroy is projected to save $770,000 annually. Eliminating weekend service alone would save just over $400,000. Increasing base fares by 25 cents would raise $2 million and raising zone fares by the same amount would bring in $2.8 million. Monthly passes may increase from $140 to $155 or more. Caltrain could cut eight trains every day, two in the morning, four at midday and two after 8 p.m. to save $370,000. Ticket offices in the San Jose and San Francisco stations could be shuttered to save half a million dollars. A combination of these cuts could balance the budget for this year.

Caltrain has frozen non-essential hiring for the past two years. But despite imminent cuts in service and projected rate increases, Caltrain is not planning to cut back employee and white-collar compensation.  Yet executive management receives 35 days of paid time off every year, and there is no maximum accumulation of said paid time.

In fact, most if not all of the jobs that include the title of ‘manager’ earn at least six figures in salary alone, with business relations managers earning a maximum of $127,632. Board secretaries can earn as much as $155,172, with the Chief Administrative Officer receiving between $157,524 and $207,936.  Deputy directors earn $171,048, and the General Manager maxes out take home pay at $289,992.

This year’s Caltrain budget troubles pale in comparison to the projected shortfalls of 2011 and 2012. The overall budget for this year is $100 million and the total budget shortfall for fiscal year 2011 is projected to be an incredible $36 million. Caltrain relies on $39 million of contributions from San Mateo Transit Authority, San Francisco Municipal Transport, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. These contributions are projected to decrease to $11 million in 2011, which is one of the reasons that Caltrain faces such an enormous deficit in 2011. In fact, the board is contemplating creating a plan that would shut down the rail service entirely by 2012.

Less rail service to Stanford, Silicon Valley, and through the San Francisco metropolitan area means less affordable transportation and increased traffic on already clogged freeways and thoroughfares. It means fewer options for those who cannot afford car travel and inconvenience and expense for many who can.

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