Santa Claus won't be coming to town this December, at least not on Caltrain's annual holiday train.
Mike Scanlon, Caltrain's executive director, was tempted to cut the two days of fun last year due to significant budget constraints but had to do it this year based on the transit agency's ever-growing deficit.
"Santa's going to take a little hiatus this year," said Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn. "We are all disappointed. It is not a permanent decision, we are hoping to bring it back."
The holiday train is a non-passenger train decorated with more than 40,000 lights that takes Santa Claus to nine different Caltrain stations over two days.
The event has also served as a toy drive for the Marine Corps Reserve and Salvation Army. Local high school choirs and bands are a part of the festivities and hundreds lined the Burlingame Caltrain station last year to get a glimpse of Santa.
Caltrain declared a fiscal emergency in June and will consider raising fares and reducing service to stem a deficit expected to grow to $40 million in two years.
A public hearing to discuss fare increases and service reductions is set for Sept. 2.
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board adopted its fiscal year 2010-11 budget yesterday, but still needs to make up about $2.3 million to close the deficit.
Reductions are proposed for service to Gilroy, weekend service, early and late-night trains and some mid-day trains, Dunn said.
A proposal to raise the base fare 25 cents could earn about $1 million a year. An idea to raise the zone fare by 25 cents would earn about $1.4 million a year, Dunn said.
In October, staffed ticket offices in San Francisco and San Jose will close at a savings of about $650,000 a year.
Ridership has continued to decline, down 1.3 percent in May.
For the year, ridership has declined 6.4 percent.
Caltrain's operating budget is $99 million and its capital budget is $33 million, down nearly half in the past few years, Dunn said.
The transit agency declared a fiscal emergency last year too, but was able to avoid fare increases, although mid-day service was reduced drastically.
The $40 million projected deficit is a result of its three member agencies lowering their annual contribution, declining sales tax revenue and the state's budget crisis.
The train service does not have a dedicated funding stream and relies on SamTrans, Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to survive. San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties formed a joint-powers agreement to operate Caltrain, which provides service from Gilroy to San Francisco.
Caltrain's revenue has dropped more than $18.3 million from last year to this year based primarily on its three-member agencies contributing $14 million less to its operating budget.
Currently, Caltrain gets less than 50 percent of its revenue from paying customers.
Revenue for fiscal year 2011 are projected to be $78.9 million with $43.4 million of that coming directly from the fare box. The three transit agencies will contribute $25.4 million to Caltrain for 2011, down nearly 37 percent from 2010.
While ridership is slightly down for Caltrain, fare box revenue has been relatively steady.
Expenses for fiscal year 2011 are projected to be $102.4 million.
In three budget cycles, from 2010, 2011 and 2012, revenue is expected to drop nearly $30 million while expenses climb. Caltrain's revenue in fiscal year 2010 was $97.2 million. For fiscal year 2011, revenue will be $78.9 million. The number plummets further in 2012 to $63.8 million.
For the past several years, the Joint Powers Board has balanced the budget using one-time funding sources that are now depleted.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.