A year after a last-minute bailout saved broke Caltrain from shutting down half its stations and trains, the commuter line is so flush with cash that for the first time in four years it is adding service and keeping most fares intact.
Rider counts have spiked and local transit agencies are maintaining their funding, guaranteeing a steady ride -- at least for one more year, before the popular Peninsula rail line could be scrambling for money again.
For now, at least, riders such as Scott Crosby are enjoying a rare break from checking the schedule to be sure their train still exists.
"I was a little nervous that it might go away entirely, which would be devastating," said Crosby, who rides the train from his San Francisco home to his software company job in Palo Alto. "I refuse to drive. I'm not going to battle the 101 every day."
Breezing through its most painless budget in years, the Caltrain board on Thursday approved a $111 million spending plan for the year that begins July 1. It's enough money to run 92 one-way trains between San Francisco and San Jose each weekday starting in September, up from the current 86-train schedule but still shy of the 98-train peak a few years ago.
The extra six trains will turn hourly service into trains every half-hour from 9 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 3 p.m. and add extra express trains at 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. While fares will increase 25 cents July 1 for those few occasional riders that still
What has changed since the dark forecast last year?
First, despite recent fare hikes, parking fee increases and service cuts, more passengers have squeezed into crowded and standing-room-only trains as gas prices increase and the local job market bounces back, setting up the agency to break its rider-count record in the coming months. In just a year, rider counts have soared 11 percent, padding Caltrain's budget by $10 million.
Second, the three counties Caltrain runs through -- Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco -- agreed in 2011 to fund the commuter line at essentially regular levels after threatening cuts, which were scrapped amid outcry across the region. Those grants, along with some regional funds, are flowing again but are scheduled to dry up next year.
And that prospect has Caltrain officials warning riders to brace for possible major cuts as soon as summer 2013.
The rail agency projects up to a $40 million hole as early as July 2013, which could threaten all service outside rush hour and shutter less popular stations.
"We haven't been celebrating," said Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon. "We're going to have to pay the piper one of these days pretty soon."
Sound familiar? It's the same problem as last year: Again, the three local counties in 2013 may need to slash their Caltrain subsidies in favor of funding their own local transit agencies: the Valley Transportation Authority, SamTrans and San Francisco Muni.
Caltrain has regularly warned of doom-and-gloom scenarios over the past decade or so, and yet it always manages to get by.
"Every year the sky is falling, but they never put any effort into having any kind of real solution," said San Francisco resident Mike Sonn, who rides Caltrain to his county job in Redwood City. "I just hope they don't rest on their laurels and not pursue an actual budget remedy" for the future.
Most indications are that the agency and outside supporters are looking long term. California legislators are set to consider a bill next session that would allow Caltrain to place a measure on the ballot to raise permanent funding. Voters in the three counties would need to approve an eighth-cent sales tax, a parcel tax, gas tax or some other measure as soon as 2013.
And for the first time, Caltrain is also seriously considering other long-term options to save money, like privatizing service, merging operations with another agency or even turning the railroad into a nonprofit. Plans to electrify the rail line, creating more service and cheaper operations, are gaining momentum and construction could begin as early as next year.
"(This year) is a welcome short-term relief," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who is authoring the ballot measure bill. But "by adding those trains, they're just building service back to what it was a few years ago. We're holding our own."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenberg17.
$111 million: Record budget
46,169: Record daily ridership, expected to be broken in coming months
6: Extra trains that will be added to schedule in September
$40 million: Funds needed to avoid drastic service cuts as soon as July 2013
4: years since last service increase or fare freeze