Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 6, 2014

With Caltrain in mind, Palo Alto seeks larger sales-tax hike

City wants proposed tax measure to fund grade separations along rail corridor

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's support for a countywide sales-tax increase to pay for an extension of BART and a host of other transportation projects could hinge on a single question: What's in it for Caltrain?

The City Council raised this question in a letter to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an advocacy organization spearheading the tax measure, which would raise the Santa Clara County sales tax by a quarter cent for 30 years. The group estimates that the tax will raise about $3.5 billion for transportation improvements, including $1.5 billion for the extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to San Jose.

In the letter, which the council approved by an 8-0 vote Wednesday night (Mayor Nancy Shepherd was absent), Palo Alto officials argue that the sales-tax increase should be raised to three-eighths of a cent, with the added one-eighth cent going to Caltrain improvements. These would include, most notably, grade separations along the Caltrain corridor, which city staff estimates would cost about $150 million at each crossing. Without these over- or underpasses, "increases to Caltrain capacity may be negatively offset by increased auto traffic delays at Caltrain grade crossings," the letter states.

"Caltrain is critically important to the overall success of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) by helping complete the regional public transportation ring around the Bay," the letter from Mayor Nancy Shepherd to Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino states. "Caltrain provides essential service to Silicon Valley, the economic heart of the Bay Area."

The letter represents Palo Alto's official response to Guardino's request at a May 19 meeting that the city lend its support to the transportation measure. Guardino cited a recent poll that found 73 percent of county voters would support a new sales tax to fund infrastructure projects in Silicon Valley. The $3.5 billion would be split roughly in three parts, with a third paying for BART's extension to San Jose, another third paying for highway improvements and the remaining third paying for other services, including Caltrain. Guardino estimated that about $500 million would go to Caltrain improvements, a number that some on the council felt was too low given the proposed allocation for BART.

During Wednesday's discussion, council members acknowledged that an extension of BART is a worthy project, but stressed the importance of concurrently improving Caltrain so that the two systems can be linked. Councilwoman Gail Price, who chairs the council's Policy and Services Committee, said she and her committee colleagues agreed during their May 20 discussion of the topic that support for Caltrain is critical.

The council agreed that making the jump from a quarter-cent increase to a three-eighth increase would allow the county to improve both systems. Councilman Greg Scharff called Caltrain "the spine of Silicon Valley" and enthusiastically supported adding the one-eighth cent.

"By having the extra eight of a cent, we solve the issue of Caltrain for the most part," Scharff said. "We get to have much more capacity, speed and efficiency."

Councilman Greg Schmid made the case for taking a more aggressive stance with the Leadership Group. He called the proposed letter a little "too polite" and said the city should request that Caltrain gets a share equal to BART's, regardless of whether the higher tax rate would be pursued. Schmid proposed including the following sentence in the letter: "Without a higher three-eighth cent tax rate, the share going to BART and Caltrain should be equalized."

The goal, Schmid said, "is to outline as clearly as possible that Caltrain is as important for ridership as the extension of BART is to Santa Clara County."

That proposal fell by a 2-6 vote, with only Councilwoman Karen Holman supporting it. Other council members advocated sticking to the original position of the letter and potentially revisiting the decision at a later date. Councilman Pat Burt said he was inclined to focus on advocating for a higher tax and considering next steps after seeing the Leadership Group's response to the city's position.

"What we're requesting — if it was achievable, if it polled successfully and went successfully to the voters — would be truly transformative for Caltrain," Burt said.

Klein was more forceful in rejecting Schmid's proposal, calling it "bad psychology, bad negotiating tactics and really a nonstarter." The city, he noted, is not in a deadlock situation and has nothing to gain from taking a tough stance with the Leadership Group.

"Many negotiations have to take into account what the other party wants so everyone's interest is taken into account," Klein said. "The main motivator of this is BART, and the formula being suggested would not provide for the $1.3 billion that is needed for BART to be completed. By suggesting something that undercuts the very motivation (of) this private agency, I think you're undermining our credibility."

The council members are hardly alone in touting the virtues of an improved Caltrain. In its poll of 600 likely Santa Clara County voters, the Leadership Group found 73 percent of responders support increased Caltrain commuter rail service from Gilroy to Palo Alto. Meanwhile, 67 percent support the planned BART extension from San Jose's Berryessa district to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara. More than 80 percent support improvements that would ease congestion on expressways, increase safety for walking and biking near schools and provide more transit services for seniors and the disabled.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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