Caltrain commuters, many of whom were lured out of their cars to save money at the gas pump, may be paying higher fares to help offset the commuter rail agency's own rising fuel costs.
In April 2007, when Caltrain last raised fares, a gallon of diesel fuel to run the trains was almost $2.30; at the end of last week, the price was $3.39. In early July, the cost skyrocketed to $4.25, showing the volatility of fuel prices.
During the last fiscal year, Caltrain spent almost $11 million on fuel; this year's fuel budget was set at $14.4 million - but even that may not be enough, officials say.
To help offset the increase, Caltrain administrators want, at the very least, to raise fares 25 cents for each boarding. More money could be had if the agency tacked on an additional 25-cent increase for each zone traveled. There are six zones separating one end of the system in San Francisco and the other end in Gilroy.
For a Caltrain rider traveling from Menlo Park to San Francisco, that could mean spending $2 more for round-trip travel; the journey now costs $11.50.
The monthly pass for the same trip could jump as high as $172.50, an increase of almost $20. Discounts still would apply for seniors, youth and disabled passengers.
The Caltrain governing board will decide as soon as next month which, if any, fare increase to enact.
"I'm actually surprised they haven't raised the fare sooner," said John Junkerman, a Burlingame resident who commutes by train to and from his pharmaceuticals job in South San Francisco.
While he doesn't relish the idea of paying more, he said he understands the need and isn't willing to switch to driving where he'd have to fight traffic. "There's more to riding than just cost," he said Tuesday.
Jonathan Kim, a database content engineer who lives in San Jose and works in San Francisco, agreed.
"I just wouldn't want to sit in traffic every day," said Kim, 28, who gets around by public transit, bike and foot. And like Junkerman, he doesn't fault Caltrain for asking riders to pay more.
"Fuel is pretty expensive," he said.
Mary Shafer, a retired phone company worker and occasional Caltrain user, wasn't so generous in her assessment.
"They're just trying to nickel and dime us to death," Shafer said outside the Burlingame station Tuesday. "The bad economy is hitting everybody hard, and we need a break."
But officials say they have little choice without reducing service.
The rail agency "continues to face a fiscal crisis, exacerbated by rising fuel prices," Caltrain chief operating officer Chuck Harvey said in a report prepared for the governing board. "Increased fare-box revenues are necessary to partially offset higher fuel costs."
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the fare increase Sept. 4. The directors may vote on the proposal then or put off consideration to October. The staff has suggested the increase take effect Jan. 1.
The debate comes as Caltrain is experiencing record ridership and revenue. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Caltrain carried almost 1 million riders a month - an 8.6 percent increase over the year before, according to agency spokeswoman Christine Dunn.
Those extra passengers pumped more money into Caltrain coffers, with revenue from tickets and passes surpassing $40 million, a 15 percent increase from the prior year.
The boost in ridership has been mirrored by transit agencies in the Bay Area and across the country.
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency executive director Nathaniel Ford reported Wednesday that ridership on the Municipal Railway grew to nearly 220 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, a 6.5 percent jump from the year before. The number, he said, was based on estimates using sample counts. Over the same period, Ford said, fare revenue increased by $8.1 million, a 5.7 percent increase.
Caltrain is not the only system in the region to seek more revenue, in part to fund higher fuel expenses. The San Francisco Municipal Railway is planning to raise the cost of the monthly FastPass next year, and in November, voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties will be asked to raise the parcel tax to provide more subsidies for AC Transit.
"It's all about the numbers," said Dunn, the Caltrain spokeswoman. "I think people understand that we have to pay more for fuel just as they do."
Caltrain fare plan
The Caltrain governing board will hold a public hearing Sept. 4 on the proposed fare increase and possible vote on the matter. The meeting is tentatively scheduled to start at 10 a.m. at 1250 San Carlos Ave. in San Carlos.
To read the detailed proposal:
E-mail Rachel Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle