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Caltrain Raises Rates To Keep All Trains Running

JPB approves balanced budget, raises fares and parking pass cost.

Caltrain riders will be forced to pay more for a ticket and parking pass under a decision made by the rail system's board of directors, but all 86 trains will remain on the tracks.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board voted 5-3 at Caltrain headquarters in San Carlos on Thursday to accept a budget balancing plan for the 2012 fiscal year that closes a $3.5 million revenue gap and prevents any service interruptions from being implemented in July.

Board chair and San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd voted against the budget proposal, along with board members San Carlos Mayor Omar Ahmad and San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros.

The core of Caltrain's financial struggles stem from the lack of a dedicated funding source. The system's operations are paid for by a collaborative sponsorship split between the City and County of San Francisco, the Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority and the San Mateo County Transit District, according to a Caltrain report.

Under the pending necessary approval of this budget plan by the rail system's three sponsoring agencies, riders will be asked to pay 25 cents more per ticket,  and one-day parking passes in Caltrain lots will increase from $3 to $4. Month-long parking passes will also increase from $30 per month to $40.

The ticket cost increase will generate $2 million for Caltrain, along with an additional $500,000 of revenue from the parking rate hikes, the report states.

Going into today's meeting, the board was facing a $3.5 million deficit. Under the board's approval, that gap will be filled by a contribution from the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, a Bay Area transportation planning group. 

Last month, the Joint Powers Board announced Caltrain was facing a fiscal emergency, and considered reducing the amount of daily trains running down to 48, as well as possibly closing stations among other service reductions.

That announcement of a fiscal emergency was the third of its kind, in as many years, made by Caltrain's governing board.

The proposal to cut the amount of trains in circulation brought more than 100 Peninsula residents and train advocates to the March 3 meeting to voice their opposition for service reductions.

Since that meeting, the board has found the funds to close what then was a $30 million deficit, while avoiding cutting the current service level. 

Today, board member and San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier was recognized by her fellow board members for working to secure the contribution from the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, where she also occupies a board seat.

 "I'm amazed we've come this far, this quickly," said board member and Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss.

And though some board members said they were glad to approve a budget for the next fiscal year that avoided any service reductions, they unanimously agreed a sustainable dedicated funding source would be necessary to ensure a healthy financial future for Caltrain.

"This is just the beginning, and we can't be satisfied with this as a resolution," said board member and San Jose City Councilman Ash Kaira.

Tissier suggested to soon begin laying the groundwork for floating a tax measure to voters, the revenues from which would go solely to fund Caltrain, and give the rail system the dedicated funding source it is lacking.

She said any tax measure for Caltrain would need to approved by 2/3 of voters in both San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

Caltrain is the only public transportation system in the Bay Area that is not a beneficiary of a dedicated funding source, according to a Caltrain report.

Tissier also recommended an amendment to the meeting's motions that would compel the board to attempt to solve its budget issues for the fiscal year 2013 by July.

She said accomplishing that would smooth the path toward asking voters for financial support if the rail system's short term budget issues were already solved, and the immediate future of Caltrain not in a state of uncertainty.

Her motion was unanimously approved by the board members.

Tissier acknowledged that the process of getting a tax measure passed, or finding any dedicated funding source, approved would be difficult.

"There is no pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow," said Tissier.

But Ahmad was still apparently dissatisfied by the proposal to balance the budget by using money that may not be available again. After passage of Tissier's amendment, he floated a motion attempting to guarantee that barring discovery of a permanent funding source, Caltrain's service would be permanently cut to 48 trains a day. 

A 48 train schedule would suspend weekend service, severely cut the amount of weekday trains in circulation, eliminate special service to baseball or hockey games, and possibly close some stations, among other service reductions.

Ahmad said the 48 train schedule was the only long term budget that could be approved by the board, given Caltrain's current financial state.

"We are not just kicking the can down the road, we are kicking it into a hole," he said. And he furthered his point by claiming that the board wasn't dodging a bullet by approving the recommended one year budget, but rather it was "taking a bullet right in the chest."

Elsbernd agreed with Ahmad's sentiments, and said that without the addition of his motion, the approved budget plan would be a "false document."

"The underbelly of this system is completely corroded," said Elsbernd. He added that the usage of one-time funds to balance the next fiscal year's budget only guarantees the board will announce another fiscal emergency this time next year.

But Kaira said he did not have enough information to approve Ahmad's proposal, and Tissier added that the outcome of any future attempts to get a dedicated funding source approved should be allowed to speak for itself.

"If the public shoots down a revenue source, they are saying 'we don't need Caltrain,'" said Tissier.

She also said Ahmad's proposal would result in the elimination of the Baby Bullet route, which offers passengers a trip spanning San Jose to San Francisco in about an hour.

She said the board shouldn't threaten to end the system's most popular route, and then ask Peninsula residents to support a tax measure that would serve as a funding source.

Ultimately, Ahmad's motion was shot down by a 3-5 vote, with board members Tissier, Kaira, Kniss, Ken Yeager and Arthur Lloyd dissenting.

The three in favor of Ahmad's proposal subsequently voted in opposition of the board's budget proposal.

The board's ultimate approval of the budget plan came to the chagrin of Ahmad.

"We have a scheme, not a resolution," he said.

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