The board's vote offered the tax measure a last-minute reprieve after weeks of dispute and acrimony among the counties and agencies that make up the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates the rail line. Transit officials and elected representatives have clashed over the issue of governance reforms, which some had argued needed to be included as part of the tax proposal.
Supervisors from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have long complained about the fact that San Mateo County has the lion's share of control over Caltrain operations, since the San Mateo County Transit District manages the agency.
But while supervisors from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties made the case for governance reforms, San Mateo supervisors countered that including these reforms in the tax measure would be illegal. After the San Francisco board of supervisors voted last week to tie funding to governance reforms, the effort hit a seemingly insurmountable obstacle on July 31, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) fell a vote shy of approving the placement of the San Francisco-approved measure on the ballot.
Any ballot measure would require approval from all three boards of supervisors and four transit agencies before it can be placed on the ballot.
But early this week, with just days left until the Aug. 7 deadline for placing the one-eighth of a cent sales tax on the November ballot, a compromise emerged. Cindy Chavez, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and a proponent of government reform, announced at Tuesday's meeting a "compendium resolution" signed by herself, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, San Mateo County Supervisor David Pine and Steve Heminger, a member at the SFMTA board of directors (all four are members of the Caltrain board of directors).
Both Chavez and Walton had advocated over the past month for tying the ballot measure to government reforms, while Pine and Heminger had expressed support for a "clean" tax measure.
The resolution, which the Caltrain board approved Thursday afternoon, commits the agency to pursue various governance reforms. These include the hiring of an independent auditor and an independent counsel for Caltrain. An executive director could also be hired in the future. Caltrain would also be required to recommend a new governance structure or procedures to the three counties by no later than Dec. 31, 2021.
"Taken together, these resolutions will address Caltrain's critical funding need while also focusing our efforts on addressing the long-standing issues regarding the governance relationships and management of Caltrain," the letter co-signed by Chavez, Walton, Pine and Heminger states.
Chavez said that the commitments in the resolution allow her to support the original measure, which did not include the governance changes. While the measure still faces numerous hurdles, the Board of Supervisors' 5-0 vote creates a path forward for a proposal that Caltrain leaders say is desperately needed to ward off the shutdown of the commuter rail service. With ridership plunging by 95% since the shutdown began, Caltrain — which depends heavily on ticket revenues — has been propped up by federal funds.
The Santa Clara vote cleared the way for other agencies and jurisdictions to similarly approve the "clean" tax measure. The SFMTA board did so on Wednesday, while the Caltrain board followed suit by unanimously backing it on Thursday afternoon. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority was scheduled to vote on the measure on Thursday, while the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was preparing to approve it on Friday, the final day for placing a measure on the ballot.
The San Mateo Board of Supervisors and the San Mateo County Transit District had previously approved placing the clean measure on the ballot.
Chavez said that by including governance in the compendium resolution, the point was to "get at least on the record a plan for how we could address governance issues in a timely manner.
"These questions have been swirling around for a while," Chavez said. "I appreciate that folks weren't afraid to roll up their sleeves, keep talking and get to 'yes.'"
In Palo Alto, the issue of Caltrain governance became a sticking point last month, when Mayor Adrian Fine submitted a letter on behalf of the city advocating for placing the tax on the ballot. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois responded by sending his own letter to the various transit agencies and boards of supervisors in the three counties stating that Fine represented only his own views and not those of the council, which had yet to discuss the issue.
On Monday night, the council overcame the epistolary spat and unanimously supported a letter to Santa Clara County advocating for placing the measure on the ballot. The letter also requested that Caltrain and Santa Clara County address the "longstanding and complex issue" of governance. Without a measure, the letter noted, Caltrain is likely to run out of funds before the end of the year and face a $71 million deficit in the next fiscal year.
"Caltrain is a vital link in the region's transit network, which provides critical alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel," Palo Alto's letter states. "Thousands of essential workers and transit-dependent riders continue to use the service."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former Caltrain board member, also included in the council's motion a request that the transit agency "support efforts in the future to work with other jurisdictions on the governance issue." Kniss likened the current funding mechanism for Caltrain to a "handshake" deal between the three counties.
"When the money is there, everything works out well. When it isn't, you get back into a situation as we (have) today," said Kniss, who in the past had advocated for governance reforms. "I don't think we should hang it all up tonight by demanding it."