BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
On the eve of a vote by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors which could sink an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax for Caltrain once and for all, Palo Alto’s mayor and vice mayor sent contrasting letters regarding the tax.
Mayor Adrian Fine, who is on the pro-development side of the council, sent a letter to San Francisco Board President Norman Yee expressing his and the city’s support for the tax and urged the San Francisco board to approve an ordinance in support of the tax.
Caltrain must get the OK from seven boards, its own and the supervisors and transit boards in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in order to put the $100 million-a-year tax before the voters in the three counties in November.
Palo Alto does not have a vote on whether the Caltrain tax can go on the ballot.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who is on the slow-growth side of the council, also sent a letter to Yee saying that Fine’s letter does not represent the city council or the city of Palo Alto’s view on the sales tax.
DuBois says that Fine’s letter “does not carry any more weight than the position of any other member of our city council.”
However, Fine told the Post that the city has a policy in place saying sending his letter is alright. Fine also pointed out that the city council at its February council retreat made “improving mobility for all” one of its top three priorities. That included a dedicated funding source, for public transit, Fine said.
But DuBois contends it isn’t OK for Fine to have sent such a letter.
“Any discussion of new taxes typically involves multiple council discussions before we would endorse a new tax. No such discussion occurred and I was in the uncomfortable position of meeting with regional leaders who just received this letter,” DuBois said in an email to the Post.
The two letters also reflect the two main sides of the debate regarding the Caltrain tax. Caltrain officials have said that unless there is a massive ridership increase soon, the train system will be broke and will have to shut down by December. And because of that, supporters of Caltrain, such as Fine, are urging for county and transit officials to put the measure on the November ballot, where it will have to get two-thirds of the vote to win.
“Allowing Caltrain to fail will leave all of these riders without a transit option. We owe it to the communities we serve to do everything we can to prevent that from happening,” Fine wrote in his letter.
Fine is not the only official to write to the board urging it to support the Caltrain tax. Over the weekend, a letter supporting the tax was released by seven San Mateo County officials including congresswomen Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto and assemblymen Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo and Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park. Berman used to be a Palo Alto councilman before being elected to the Assembly in 2016.
But on the other hand, some officials, such as San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton, who halted the tax from being discussed at the board’s meeting last Tuesday, are unhappy with the fact that San Mateo County controls much of Caltrain.
It is the SamTrans board, not the Caltrain board, that has the hiring and firing power of the CEO of the two agencies. The SamTrans board is comprised entirely of San Mateo County residents.
Caltrain also has a board comprised of three officials from each county but it has little authority since it cannot hire or fire Caltrain’s executive director, Jim Hartnett.
Officials in Santa Clara County have also raised the issue with how Caltrain is governed, and DuBois expressed that point in his letter, saying that he would like to see Caltrain reach out to the agencies along its corridor and as a council member for the city with the highest Caltrain ridership outside of San Francisco, he would “welcome” the opportunity to be more directly involved with Caltrain.
Officials from San Francisco and Santa Clara late last week proposed a compromise that all funds generated by the new tax — about $100 million a year — would go back to the county in which they are collected, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The money would be deposited in an account controlled by the county’s transit agency, which would then have the authority to give all of it, some of it or none of it to Caltrain.
But the same group that wrote to the board — Speier, Eshoo et. al — to say that the compromise could mean that Caltrain never sees a dime from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed another compromise — give the first $40 million that rolls in from the tax to Caltrain, and then release the rest to Caltrain when the issue of who controls the railroad is settled.
Supervisors for both San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are expected to vote on whether to put the tax on the ballot tomorrow (July 21).
Santa Clara County’s meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. and is a regularly scheduled item. San Francisco’s board meets at 2 p.m., and it will be up to a supervisor to call for an emergency item to place the item on the meeting schedule.
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney announced on Thursday via Twitter that he plans to ask the other supervisors to vote on the item.
“San Franciscans have already invested billions into Caltrain infrastructure, which requires not only sustainable funding but also expansion, including the Salesforce Transit Center (now the world’s most expensive bus station) and ultimately the downtown extension. We are all in,” Haney wrote on Twitter.
San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors and the SamTrans board have already approved the tax. The boards for VTA, San Francisco’s Transit Authority and Caltrain still need to vote on the tax before Aug. 7, the deadline for placing a tax measure on the ballot.
If the measure is placed on the ballot, two-thirds of residents across all three counties must approve the tax.