San Francisco supervisors Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin on Wednesday stood by their refusal to support asking voters in November to support a sales tax for Caltrain, though the move seemed to threaten the rail system's future.
Like most transit agencies, Caltrain has seen a dramatic drop in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic and is struggling financially as a result; up to 70% of its revenue comes from passenger fares. A dedicated sales tax assessed in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties would help.
Both San Mateo County's Board of Supervisors and the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans, which operates Caltrain for the Peninsula Joint Powers Board, have approved putting the measure on November ballots in the region.
But the boards of supervisors in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties and the leaders of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority also must agree.
Walton, who is San Francisco's representative on the Joint Powers Board, said the fact that Caltrain is operated by SamTrans presents a problem.
"(That) means San Francisco voters and San Francisco leadership don't actually make decisions as to what happens with the funds," Walton said. "But yet we pay millions of dollars to the railroad each year. This inequitable relationship has to change."
The sales tax was initially proposed to fund the electrification of Caltrain, but the agency now needs the funding to keep operating. It said its weekday average ridership, at 65,000 before the pandemic, has dropped by 95%.
"Let me be very clear, we continue (to) support Caltrain as a regional resource and I want to give San Mateo County its due for stewarding Caltrain over many years. It is time to move the governance model and the funding model into the twenty-first century," Peskin said. "This is about the intermingling of funds for a county bus operation with regional railroad."
"The notion that the poorest individuals in the three counties would be a source of funding for Caltrain did not go over well with our colleagues," Peskin said of the San Francisco supervisors, adding that over the last year he and Walton have been discussing the proposed tax with Santa Clara and San Mateo county leaders.
On Wednesday morning, Caltrain tweeted that it "needs dedicated funding." Also on Twitter, San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals said Peskin doesn't "care about traffic or the environment."
Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, which is in Santa Clara County, sought middle ground, tweeting, "I'll push for a regional agreement—but San Mateo County cannot assume that we'll happily just give them our money without any accountability to our county's taxpayers."