Those trying to hitch a free ride on Caltrain may soon find themselves at greater risk of receiving a ticket — albeit a less costly ticket.
The tri-county agency’s Board of Directors approved a new policy Thursday that officials say will be a more effective and less cumbersome system for cracking down on fare evaders.
Starting in April, transit police and conductors can gather needed information to issue tickets by simply scanning a photo ID of the evader who will then receive notice in the mail. It’s a major improvement from the current process that often takes up to 15 minutes for a conductor to write a single ticket, said Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman.
“This will be a lot easier and a lot less cumbersome,” Lieberman said.
Current data show about 2,100 people a month are given verbal warnings or ticketed for not paying their fair share in fares, and that an average of 15 passengers get unruly — some to the point of assaulting conductors, Lieberman said.
The current lengthy ticketing process and high prices are cited as possible fuel for unruly passengers who sometimes assault conductors. When that happens, it can hold up the train for everyone, he said.
“The entire train gets held up while police arrive to arrest someone for assaulting a conductor — which is way more cumbersome than the process for issuing a ticket should be,” Lieberman said.
The agency is also moving from a civil court process to an administrative one, which streamlines the system under Caltrain’s ticketing authority and enables it to retain the fees. For passengers, that means the new administrative penalty is reduced to $75, much less than going through the legal system where fines start at $250 but can hit $600 when including court fees, Lieberman explained.
“Both the cost and the tedium associated with it [now], may be more of a reason for people to get agitated to the point where they do something foolish,” Lieberman said.
The shift will also alleviate its burden on the courts. Caltrain operates across Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, each with its own legal system. That means under the current civil process conductors have to determine in which jurisdiction they’ve caught the evader before writing a ticket specific to one of the three court systems.
That complexity has apparently led to a high rate of the tickets being overturned in court, said Dave Pine, a Caltrain board member and San Mateo County supervisor.
“It should improve enforcement,” Pine said, noting staff indicated that “under the current system, 65 percent of the tickets were overturned because of the complexity of writing them up properly. So it won’t be as complex of a system and should improve enforcement.”
The new streamlined process means Caltrain can issue administrative fines, and retain the fees per a new statewide law. But the goal of the new policy isn’t about increasing revenue, it’s about implementing a more effective system, Lieberman said.
Caltrain operates on an honor-based system whereby people don’t have to provide proof of payment unless they’re asked by a conductor or police. The faster electronic ticketing system can provide conductors with more time to patrol the cars and ideally catch more evaders.
Conductors will also be encouraged to take a zero-tolerance approach, which some believe could alleviate the potential for people to argue they’ve been singled out for enforcement.
Caltrain Board Member Jeff Gee, also a Redwood City councilman, noted the agency enforcing its own evasion policy would be a benefit to both riders and transit police.
“It allows us to do a little more to enforce fare evasion,” Gee said, adding those writing the tickets “can do a better job and not face criticism for looking at people the wrong way.”
What’s a fair price for fares?
During Thursday’s meeting, the board also reviewed an ongoing study regarding what policies should influence the rates people pay to ride Caltrain. The agency does not currently have a fare policy in place and is looking at what factors should be considered when hiking ticket prices.
Caltrain officials cautioned no increases are slated for the immediate future, noting rates were just increased and the study is about developing a policy.
Still, the discussion is notable as Caltrain mulls projected budget deficits and the prospect of asking voters for a sales tax.
The fare study outlines three key goals; including identifying opportunities to maximize revenue, enhancing ridership numbers and safeguarding social as well as geographic equity, according to a staff presentation.
Considerations include increasing base fares, introducing an off-peak discount for those riding during times with less demand, and changing the Go Pass system employers often use to buy discounted tickets for workers.
But there’s a fine line between generating more revenue and keeping Caltrain a desirable alternative to driving solo. One factor prompting the potential changes is that many well-paid Caltrain riders appear willing to spend more. Demand for Caltrain is considered “inelastic,” meaning raising prices isn’t expected to reduce ridership, according to the presentation.
Still, Gee and Pine were cognizant that a number of riders have pocketbooks that probably can’t tolerate fare increases.
“While a substantial number of our riders have higher incomes, we still have low-income riders and I don’t think they have the ability to pay much more than they are,” Pine said. “There’s a need to be equitable in serving our residents and not having a service only for the most wealthy.”
Caltrain is also working with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as the regional entity considers a merit-based discount for lower-income earners using mass transit.
Caltrain riders are also facing a number of rate increases that have, or are about to, go into effect. Standard ticket prices increased 25 cents per zone, the cost of a monthly pass is now based on 14 days and will again increase to 15 days in July, and the eight-ride ticket discount was eliminated. The Go Pass was increased from $190 to $237.50 on Jan. 1, and will increase to $285 a year later. Monthly parking prices were also hiked from $55 to $82.50 starting this past October.
Even in 2015, the amount it charged for tickets had Caltrain earning one of the highest fare box recovery ratios of commuter rail systems in the nation — at 70 percent it was just behind BART, according to the presentation.
Gee agreed increasing ticket prices, again, isn’t in the imminent future.
“We are already one of the highest recovery rates for fare boxes in the country,” Gee said. “We should look at other ways to manage our budget.”
The cost of operating Caltrain typically outpaces revenue and officials have projected a fiscal cliff in future years if no changes are made. Plus, its plans to fully electrify the system are not entirely funded. While cash is lined up to electrify 51 miles of track, it only has enough to convert 75 percent of its fleet and is seeking additional support to buy more electric trains down the road.
Caltrain is also one of the few transit agencies that does not have a dedicated funding source, instead it relies on contributions from entities in its three member counties. A law authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, will allow it to seek an eighth-cent sales tax from voters in the three counties. But a variety of other local and regional measures are already slated for 2018 — including the MTC’s Regional Measure 3 to hike bridge tolls up to $3, and the San Mateo County Transit District’s anticipated request for another half-cent sales tax to support transportation.
With gas prices increased and voter fatigue a concern, 2018 may not be a good time for Caltrain to throw its measure in the ring. Instead, it’s in discussions with the various jurisdictions that would be involved, and may wait until at least 2020 before heading to the ballot.
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