Counties strike deal on Caltrain tax measure | August 7, 2020 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 7, 2020

Counties strike deal on Caltrain tax measure

Supervisors agree to keep governance reforms off of ballot, include them in separate resolution

by Gennady Sheyner

Seeking to ward off a predicted financial meltdown of Caltrain, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed on Tuesday to support placing on the November ballot a sales tax measure to fund the transit agency's operations.

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."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at [email protected]


12 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 5, 2020 at 10:34 am

PhilB is a registered user.

Finally, a voice of reason.

It would be sheer lunacy to let Caltrain shut down. No one has repealed the laws of economics, which says that a recession is always followed by a recovery, no matter what the "Chicken Little" people are saying.

7 people like this
Posted by No to more taxes
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2020 at 10:59 am

No to more taxes is a registered user.

This tax would generate more funds than CalTrain now uses. You know with the extra money they will just pay themselves more and waste the funds. Plus we don't need more taxes.

It is time for our elected representatives to look seriously at what services are needed to serve the community and focus on those. They may need to cut some services to individuals, cut salaries, cut overhead and get serious about what really needs to be funded.

We do need more funds to go to services that benefit all of the residents of the area but these should come from the large amount of tax that is already collected and community funding should supplant funding that only benefits individuals. It is called making hard choices and the community well being should come first.

Funding for trains, roads, parks, community playing fields, hospitals, that benefit everyone, should be the priority.

15 people like this
Posted by CGPA
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2020 at 11:08 am

CGPA is a registered user.

It still has to pass a bunch of voters working from home, possibly for years, who may see little benefit to paying for it.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 5, 2020 at 11:26 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

CGPA was the one threatening violence on another topic. Sounded like the group that is intent on taking down the economy of the state. To what purpose? If you keep taking down major cities then there will be no tourist, no new jobs, no new housing.

The train is operating now. People are going places. The golf courses are filled up. The people are on the streets eating dinner. People are on the move. It is coming back. Everyone is not going to be sitting in their homes working. YEAH. Still do not see the governor stepping in here. Transportation should be a main state budget item. It should not be left up to the SF supervisors who sit in their offices all day.
The governor needs to focus on major issues which effect the total economy. Yes - one focus now but that is temporary.

14 people like this
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 5, 2020 at 12:29 pm

Kathy is a registered user.

Caltrain is a great resource, however, the trains are running empty, with Covid and everyone telecommuting. The proposed Caltrain sales tax @ $100 million/year is $70 million more/year than the $30 million in subsidies Caltrain currently receives from already existing and remaining transportation sales taxes. That extra $30 million/year won't be refunded to us if this new, additional sales tax is passed. It'll just be absorbed by the other not so efficient transit agencies, VTA, Samtrans, and Muni. I suggest Muni, VTA and Samtrans economize instead in these down times.

Santa Clara County's sales tax is already a minimum of 9% --- a regressive tax on the low income and unemployed population to generate an extra $70 million/year to transport Caltrain's affluent ridership. 30 year regressive taxes aren't needed to get over temporary financing bumps, especially when there are existing transportation sales taxes in place.

4 people like this
Posted by Be accurate
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 5, 2020 at 12:32 pm

Be accurate is a registered user.

The word "lunacy" has been brought up. This is a diesel powered train, as far as I know. In the Silicon Valley ... in 2020 ... and going forward.
The Caltrain electrification project started as far back as 1992. Several cities sued over elevated tracks, etc. The funding has been stopped by Elaine Chao, the "transportation secretary" appointed based on merit exclusively.
This is what lunacy is. 2020 ... USA ... Silicon Valley ... diesel.

6 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2020 at 2:08 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

What's with Supervisor Cindy Chavez and her love of sales taxes?

2 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Aug 5, 2020 at 2:29 pm

chris is a registered user.


The time of the people gridlocked on the roads is worth far more than the cost of this tax. It this fails, the little people who have to drive to work will be hurt the worst regardless of how regressive you think this tax is.

4 people like this
Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 5, 2020 at 2:31 pm

Old Steve is a registered user.

@Be Accurate:

How Ironic! You are writing about diesel while poles and wires are being installed every night, AND EMU train sets have been being manufactured in Salt Lake City for three years. The first train set is being live tested for delivery when the power is ready.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 5, 2020 at 2:39 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Reportedly car sales are up and use of mass transit is down.

As Kathy notes above, lots of competing transit authorities who don't apparently work well with each other resulting in inflated costs, waste, overlap, unnecessary inconveniences due to poor planning and failure to communicate etc

We're already over-taxed. Let them cot costs for a change.

6 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 5, 2020 at 3:10 pm

Kevin is a registered user.

@Be accurate

They're actually diesel-electric hybrid locomotives, like a hybrid car.

4 people like this
Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 5, 2020 at 4:16 pm

Old Steve is a registered user.

Yes what is out there today is diesel-electric. Here is a link to what is on the way. Only in CA would we shut down a transit system in construction of new motive power and vehicles, all already paid for. Shouldn't we give the new system a chance first?

Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Be accurate
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 5, 2020 at 5:55 pm

Be accurate is a registered user.

Hi all commenters, thank you.
Now .. want to know what ironic is?
It is this:
Web Link
and this:
Web Link.
and this:
Web Link
and this:
Web Link

But by all means, let us celebrate electrifying 75% of the diesel (sorry, hybrid) train by 2022 ... now maybe 2023. Seriously, so much can be achieved in a society that has basic checks for self-centered and immature (and inefficient) corporate greed.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 5, 2020 at 6:33 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Accurate - not going to open a bunch of untitled entry's. what is your point? Just say it.

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