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Dispute Over Caltrain Management Threatens to Derail Planned Tax Measure

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The side of a Caltrain train as it enters a station.
Caltrain cars at San Jose's Diridon Station, December 2016. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A three-county sales tax ballot measure that Caltrain proponents say is critical to help the Peninsula rail service survive the coronavirus crisis and meet its future expansion goals has been derailed by a dispute over how the agency is governed.

At the center of the controversy are two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who argue that the city doesn't have enough of a say in how the rail agency is run despite contributing millions of dollars of operating support every year. The supervisors, Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin, say a funding measure shouldn't go forward until that's fixed.

Caltrain and its supporters, including 10 state legislators from the three counties the system serves, are warning that the rail agency may have to shut down and that plans to modernize the system could be sidetracked for years to come unless the proposed one-eighth cent sale tax is passed. They say that although the issue of how Caltrain is managed is a legitimate one, it can be addressed without blocking the tax measure.

Caltrain is one of the transit operators hardest hit by the collapse of ridership during the shelter-at-home orders imposed in the Bay Area four months ago as the pandemic began to sweep across the region. Patronage on the system, which is heavily dependent on fare income and has no other dedicated source of funding, declined from about 65,000 riders a day to just 1,300, or 98%.

Caltrain's crisis is occurring even as it's in the midst of a $2 billion project to electrify its system and replace its aging fleet of train cars. Funds for most of that work has already been secured.

The governance dispute highlights the complex structure under which Caltrain is managed and operated.

Under a series of agreements dating back to 1991, the rail agency is operated by the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans. That arrangement was made in part because SamTrans provided all of the local share of funding to purchase the Caltrain line from Southern Pacific — a contribution for which it has never been entirely repaid by San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

A separate body, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, also plays a role in Caltrain management, setting policy and approving budgets. But the board, which includes three members from each Caltrain county, lacks basic authority, such as hiring and firing the rail system's CEO, and has no role in its day-to-day operations.

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Supervisor Walton, who is one of San Francisco's three representatives on the Joint Powers Board, cited that "lopsided relationship" in explaining why he decided not to introduce legislation Tuesday that would have begun the process of putting the tax measure on the ballot. He said other factors, such as the city's pandemic-fueled budget crisis and other taxes that may appear on the ballot, also influenced his decision.

"I cannot support a one-eighth-cent tax for Caltrain here in San Francisco with these issues and due to the fact that San Francisco has no true voice on the Joint Powers Board," Walton said. "This would be true taxation without representation."

He said that the current governance structure means that "San Francisco voters and San Francisco leadership don't actually make decisions as to what happens with the railroad. But yet we pay millions of dollars into the railroad each year. This inequitable relationship has to change."

Peskin said opposing the Caltrain tax "was not a decision we came to lightly." He insisted that he and Walton "continue to support Caltrain as a regional resource" but are determined to "move the governance model and the funding model into the 21st century" by creating an independent agency to run the rail service.

San Mateo County Board of Supervisors member Dave Pine, the chair of the Joint Powers Board, said while changes in governance need to be considered, he questions whether it makes sense to create what in essence would be a new transit agency while the region is in the beginning stages of trying to streamline and simplify its public transportation network.

"The Bay Area has more than 20 different transit districts. There's a lot of discussion now about 'seamless Bay Area' and having fewer agencies instead of more," Pine said. "It's no small thing to go and create a new transit agency."


The two San Francisco supervisors drew intense criticism from rail advocates concerned that Caltrain could be on the brink of shutting down and from a group of 10 state legislators who sent a letter on Monday urging that officials in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties move quickly to place the sales tax measure on the ballot.

"Look, we can have a conversation about governance going forward and how we reform that," said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, one of those who signed the letter. "But we can't be holding the system and the passengers hostage for parochial reasons."

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who also signed the letter, said he shared board members' frustration with Caltrain governance issues.

"But the question before us is whether Caltrain is going to continue to exist as a regional rail system for the Bay Area," Wiener said. "Without this funding we face the very real possibility of Caltrain failing. We can't afford that. Our transit systems are already struggling, they're already underfunded and we need to take every opportunity to inject new investment and support into the system."

Walton's decision not to introduce the tax measure on Tuesday doesn't necessarily kill it. The Board of Supervisors could take it up as an emergency measure that would require a two-thirds majority — eight of the board's 11 members — to move forward. Under board rules, that action would have to be taken by July 31.

"The Board of Supervisors has not voted to reject anything," Wiener said. "The board still has time to put this on the ballot, and I hope the board will do so."


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