After years of seeking emergency funding to keep from drastically slashing services, Caltrain is on track to balance its budget in fiscal year 2014 after high ridership numbers this year, rail officials announced on Thursday.
The Peninsula commuter rail line has had three years of unprecedented ridership growth, leading to a major increase in revenue. Caltrain's ridership has surged more than 11 percent each year for the last three years, and its strong ticket sales have helped to offset its deficit and increases in operating costs. The agency is projecting ticket revenue of $66.1 million and parking revenue of $3.7 million for fiscal year 2014.
But officials are not exactly breaking out the champagne. Caltrain's financial future remains uncertain beyond the next fiscal year, officials said. In 2015, Caltrain faces a significant budget shortfall that could result in service cuts and fare increases.
The rail agency continues to grapple with a lack of dedicated funding and surging demand for its services.
The proposed 2014 budget was balanced using "one-time only" stopgap money. That funding is part of the same life-saving measures revenue used to sustain Caltrain through the last few budgets.
These funding sources have included using regional money through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, stopgap funds and funds repaid to San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) for purchase of the rail line. But those funds are exhausted, and Caltrain will need to identify new funding or consider reducing service in 2015, Gigi Harrington, Deputy CEO for finance said of a preliminary report to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.
Annual ridership counts conducted in Feb. 2013, show that Caltrain serves more than 47,000 average weekday riders, nearly doubling its ridership since introducing the "baby bullet" service in 2004. The increase in demand has meant a further strain on operating and infrastructure costs. During the peak-hour commute, some trains are operating at 130 percent of capacity.
"Caltrain is straining at the seams," said Chuck Harvey, deputy CEO of operations, engineering and construction. "We need to look for ways to add capacity to the existing system to take some pressure off the most popular trains and to provide a more comfortable ride for our passengers."
Caltrain's total proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is $120 million, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year's budget. The increase is caused by ridership growth, officials said.
Harrington said staff will continue to look for solutions to Caltrain's long term structural deficit, but the refrain the agency has repeated in years past still remains:
"Without a dedicated funding source, Caltrain struggles to put together a balanced budget each year, making the long-term planning needed more difficult," she said. Most of Caltrain's operational funding comes from SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency.