Deal between three counties clears way for Caltrain tax to reach ballot

Daily Post Staff Writer

It looks like voters this fall in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties will decide whether to approve a new 0.125% sales tax to raise $100 million a year for Caltrain now that officials in the three counties have agreed to put their squabble on hold.

Leaders in the three counties had been feuding over control of Caltrain, which is run by San Mateo County through its bus agency, SamTrans. The Caltrain board doesn’t even get to hire its own CEO. Instead SamTrans makes that choice.

San Mateo County officials refused to give up control of Caltrain, saying the other two counties still owe them a combined $19.6 million from the original purchase of the rail line from Southern Pacific in 1991.

It looked like that long-simmering dispute was going to keep the tax off the ballot, since all three counties and their transit agencies would have to approve it before it went to voters.

But over the weekend, the three counties reached a deal to put the tax on the ballot and deal with the governance issues later.

Santa Clara County’s supervisors approved the deal today (Aug. 4), and the other counties are expected to do the same.

The new tax will expire in 30 years, or the year 2050.

Caltrain officials claim that without the tax, they would be forced to shut down the railroad because farebox revenues have fallen drastically due to the coronavirus lockdown. At its height, Caltrain carried 33,000 people a day.

The deal comes just days before Friday’s deadline to put measures on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Last week, San Francisco’s supervisors, led by Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton, approved a version of the ballot measure that says Caltrain could only use $40 million of the tax in the first year and that $60 would be held in escrow until the governance issue is settled.

San Mateo County officials scoffed at that, calling it a “dirty” measure.

But during today’s (Aug. 4) Santa Clara County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Supervisor Cindy Chavez — who has been one of the officials trying to broker a deal to get the measure on the ballot — announced that she is in support of the version of the tax previously approved by San Mateo County officials. That version is a simple sales tax proposal without ballot language about holding funds in escrow.

This is because Chavez, Walton and San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, who are all on the Caltrain board, struck a side deal to resolve the governance issues. The side deal will be voted on by the Caltrain board on Thursday, along with placing the tax measure on the ballot.

The Caltrain board is one of seven boards that must approve the ballot measure before it goes to voters. The others are the boards of supervisors from the three counties and the boards of the transit agencies in the three counties.

Despite the measure needing to be submitted to elections officials by Friday, only three of the seven boards have done so.

Tomorrow (Aug. 4), the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s board will be voting on the measure. Both the Caltrain and VTA boards will be voting on Thursday and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on Friday — the deadline to put the measure on the ballot.




  1. This is all for naught. Voters will kill this tax in November. It’s crazy to ask people for more taxes at a time like this. What world do these supervisors live in???

  2. This will provide the steady revenue source Caltrain needs to operate in the short term and expand in the long-run. I applaud Cindy Chavez and the problem-solvers in the other counties for reaching a solution that will create this much needed life-line. We can’t afford to have Caltrain shutdown and force its riders to clog our freeways.

  3. If Caltrain was such a vital part of our Bay Area transportation system, why would it have financial troubles? You’d think they could bring in enough money to run the system without a tax. At one time this was a profitable railroad, when it was in private hands.

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