A 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain will appear on San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara county ballots this November. It took the San Francisco and Santa Clara Boards of Supervisors until just before an early August deadline to be included in the fall vote to reach an agreement to strip the measure of any governance conditions.
The Boards of Supervisors’ actions coincided with passage of a resolution by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), the entity that oversees Caltrain, to create a process to resolve concerns about how the railroad is governed. The JPB must recommend a governance structure or procedures to the City and County of San Francisco, San Mateo County Transit District, and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority by the end of next year.
The JPB is led by three representatives from each of the three counties served by Caltrain, as well as an ex-officio – nonvoting – member from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). MTC is responsible for regional transportation planning and financing in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco’s three seats are occupied by individuals appointed by the Mayor, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA), and Board of Supervisors.
The head of San Mateo County Transit (samTrans), presently Jim Hartnett, serves as Caltrain’s chief executive officer. San Francisco and Santa Clara counties want Caltrain’s organizational structure altered to provide all three counties with authority over the rail line.
For the sales tax to take effect, two-thirds of voters in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties must approve it. If it passes, Caltrain will initially be funded from the first $40 million of approximately $108 million in revenues expected to be generated annually. Remaining monies will be kept in escrow, released by the JPB. If a governance solution is agreed to by JPB board members, the escrow account will be closed, the funds transferred to Caltrain for normal use. Sales tax collection would begin in April 2021.
“We ultimately got everything we’ve collectively been insisting on,” said District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin in an interview with the San Mateo Daily Journal. “We’ve been very, very clear. We could only support if we were co-equal partners with Santa Clara and San Mateo. That’s on its way to being achieved for the betterment of the railroad, its passengers, congestion and greenhouse gases.”
“All JPB member counties onboard,” District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton stated on Twitter. “The measure’s success will provide Caltrain with its first dedicated funding source. Let’s make history for this vital regional railroad.”
In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution led by Walton and Peskin affirming its support for an independent Caltrain agency separate from SamTrans. The resolution called for a process to determine an appropriate governance framework to lead the next generation of Caltrain’s development.
In July, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, and Santa Clara County District 2 Supervisor Cindy Chavez – who represents Downtown, east, and south San Jose – expressed support for shared Caltrain governance. That month fears of a shutdown emerged when Walton and Peskin, the City’s representatives on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and JPB, initially didn’t introduce the 1/8 sales tax to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Caltrain presently has roughly 3,200 riders a day, up from its lowest point of 1,500 daily riders. In 2019, Caltrain’s average mid-weekday ridership was 63,597, a 2.3 percent decrease from 2018, 65,095.
In July, Caltrain released survey data suggesting that 55 percent of passengers will use the service as much or more after the public health crises subsides. Roughly 68 percent of infrequent, 71 percent of frequent, travelers plan on riding as much or more than they previously had. Individuals who earn under $50,000 a year are the most likely to rely on Caltrain.
“It is a very good thing for San Francisco and the region that the Caltrain measure is going on the ballot in November,” said Adina Levin, Friends of Caltrain executive director. “Caltrain’s surveys show that riders plan to return after the pandemic eases. There will be crushing traffic on the streets and highways if Caltrain isn’t running when commuters come back. The ballot measure will take the burden of funding Caltrain operations off of SFMTA’s books, leaving more money to restore Muni service. The ballot measure will fund equity programs that will enable a greater diversity of people to use Caltrain, and more frequent, better-connected service that will make Caltrain more useful for more kinds of trips.”
Friends of Caltrain is a nonprofit that supports modernization and stable funding for Caltrain, with more than 8,000 participants in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties.
“I am elated about the compromise addressing the two key issues of funding and governance. Our community needs frequent, clean Caltrain service…(which) serves our businesses and our neighbors and reduces the number of polluting cars on our streets and freeways,” said J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters president.
Eppler added that even the threat of a shutdown is an indictment of Caltrain’s governance structure, which “…prioritizes suburban San Mateo County over the two urban downtowns that rely heavily on the service…desperately needs funding, but it also needs more equitable representation. Thanks to the efforts of Supervisor Walton and his colleagues, we have a road map for equity. Now it’s up to us to make sure that we get the votes to provide the funding.”
According to Katherine Doumani, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association president, the Caltrain station in Dogpatch is a huge draw for residents “…especially with the rapid growth of our population due to the development of dense housing proximate to the station.”