San Mateo County official says Caltrain tax is dead, shut down of train predicted

File photo

BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors today (July 28) agreed to put an eighth-of- a-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot, but the measure’s language is strongly opposed by San Mateo County officials who call it a “poison pill.”

Officials in the three counties that Caltrain serves have to agree to put the measure on the ballot by Aug. 7.

San Francisco’s version of the measure says that of the $100 million the tax is expected to generate in the first year, $60 million would be held in escrow until the counties agree on who controls Caltrain. Right now, San Mateo County runs Caltrain, which has long irritated its partners to the north and south.

San Mateo County officials say the version of the measure requiring the escrow and change in control of Caltrain is not permitted under the law the Legislature passed that allows for the three counties to get together to have an election over a Caltrain sales tax.

“San Francisco’s adoption of the alternative measure killed any prospect for a sales tax this November,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine.

Even if the tax passed, and Caltrain got the $40 million of the $100 million the measure would bring in, it wouldn’t be enough to allow the commuter railroad to run “effectively,” Pine said.

San Mateo County officials have repeatedly threatened to shut down Caltrain if they didn’t get the sales tax approved.

Still, the San Francisco board voted unanimously to approve the alternative measure, proposed by supervisors Shamann Walton, Aaron Peskin and Matt Haney.

“Today, the SF Board of Supervisors approved an alternative sales tax measure that is illegal, unwinnable at the polls, and unworkable for @Caltrain,” Pine said on Twitter. “Unless amended, this poison pill means the Caltrain sales tax is now dead, which puts the railroad in great peril.”

Before today’s meeting, several officials from San Mateo County sent letters to San Francisco supervisors urging them to pass a “clean resolution” without the escrow or governance clauses.

“Their notion of clean is my dirty,” Supervisor Peskin said during the meeting, saying that the original measure would not hold San Mateo County’s feet to the fire in regards to changing Caltrain’s governance, something Peskin says has been a problem for “decades.”

San Mateo County riled its partners in San Francisco and San Jose in 2015 when it selected former Redwood City mayor Jim Hartnett to run Caltrain, even though he lacked the qualifications listed in an advertisement for the job.

Of the 20 or so speakers who called in to speak during today’s virtual meeting, most said they are worried the tax will not pass and will be subject to a lawsuit.

No supervisor at today’s board meeting asked to publicly clarify whether the tax is legal or not.

SamTrans’ special counsel on the tax, James Wagstaffe, wrote a letter urging the board to pass the “clean” measure.

“Simply put, the law (the Legislature passed to enable the sales tax measure to be considered) means the political bodies needing to approve the ballot measure must not impose collateral or delaying conditions on use of the funds,” Wagstaffe wrote.

The tax was originally thought to be dead on July 14, after Peskin and Walton declined to have their board vote on San Mateo County’s version of the measure. Since then, Peskin, Walton and Haney have joined up with Santa Clara County officials, namely Supervisor Cindy Chavez and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, to craft the measure which was approved by San Francisco’s board today.

Santa Clara County officials have not voted on placing the issue on the ballot, that board is set to meet on Aug. 4. VTA will be voting on the measure on Aug. 6.

At its July 21 meeting, Supervisor Joe Simitian said he wanted to make sure this new ballot measure is legal before voting on it. Simitian also said he is inclined to vote for the tax measure, which if approved by 66.7% of voters would give Caltrain $100 million annually.

19 Comments

  1. Sure, sure, SMC is going to shut down Caltrain. I don’t believe it. Not for a second. At the last minute San Mateo will make a deal and it will go on the ballot. But this shows you how far San Mateo’s top electeds will go to avoid accountability.

  2. Let Caltrain close. I don’t want to pay sales taxes to fund a transportation system for the well-paid office workers in SF. Talk about screwing the poor!

  3. The tax was envisioned as a means to provide Caltrain its first and only dedicated and stable funding source, just as all other transit agencies enjoy. Caltrain is currently about halfway through a fully-funded $2 billion electrification and fleet replacement program. And so the tax would’ve also accelerated and funded its approved plan & service vision (see caltrain2040.org) to transition from a rickety, dated diesel commuter train to a sleek, modern, renewable electricity-powered, transit-level all-day, night & weekend/holiday service, to better serve all trip types and income levels (similar to BART, but with better, new, high-performance, double-deck Swiss trains). However, with the unexpected appearance of the COVID pandemic causing an extended (but still temporary) loss of over 90% of riders and their fare revenue, which normally covers 70% of Caltrain’s operating budget, the 1/8-cent sales tax has also become a means for Caltrain to literally survive the pandemic. The federal CARES Act relief funding is currently allowing all Bay Area transit operators to continue operations on “life support”, with Caltrain’s share projected to last only a few more months into the fall … with no obvious or practical way to fund continued Caltrain operations after that without something like this tax.

    Caltrain, with its pre-COVID average daily boardings of 67,000, takes about 4 freeway lanes-worth of trips off Peninsula roads & highways … as traffic levels continue to recover, the loss of Caltrain service will result in dramatically worse road congestion, affecting everyone — not just past and future riders. The above-described service expansion would’ve easily provided the equivalent of another 4 freeway lanes worth of capacity.

    • Why should we taxpayers subsidize the commutes of tech workers? It’s reverse Robbin Hood. Steal from the poor and give to the rich.

      It’s like Obama’s subsidy for Tesla buyers. If you’re buying a Tesla, you’re in the upper income brackets already. But he decided to use tax funds to help these people buy Teslas.

  4. Adrian, if the $100 million tax is for COVID-19 relief, why is the tax permanent? If the tax had an expiration date, like school parcel taxes, then we, the voters, could hold the Caltrain board accountable when they return asking for a renewal.

  5. “Caltrain, with its pre-COVID average daily boardings of 67,000, takes about 4 freeway lanes-worth of trips off Peninsula roads & highways”

    first, Caltrain double counts riders. they count them in the morning when they get on and in the evening when they get off. so the actual number of people served is 33,500 a day before the pandemic.

    second, lets deal with the claim that caltrain takes four freeway lanes of cars off the highways … what b.s.

    if you distribute those 33,500 riders over a 12-hour workday, you’re talking about 2,799 caltrain riders per hour who would be displaced.

    during peak hours, hwy 101 at embarcadero has just 15,400 vehicles per hour … according to caltran’s census … and hwy 280 at sand hill has just 11,900 per hour …

    so assume those former caltrain riders all have cars … and they’re all inclined to drive them themselves … at peak hours, they would add 2,799 cars to freeways that are already carrying 27,300 vehicles …

    that doesn’t sound like four lanes … not even one lane?

    let’s shut down caltrain and see what happens.

    • Your math is completely wrong since you are assuming ridership is evenly distributed during the day. Most of the ridership is during commute hours. So if we divide by 2 hours for each commute period, guess what? It’s over 16k people per hour, or more traffic than a 4 lane freeway.

      • “Bad math” guy, you’re so smart I’ll bet you can tell me what the throughput of a lane on Highway 101 is? But you won’t reply to me because it will show your math is off by a factor of four.

        Closing Caltrain will have a de minimis impact on traffic. (I’ll wait, Mr Bad Math guy, to give you time to look up the word de minimis.)

  6. Working from home will continue into next year. However, it will not be permanent
    and the Bay Area needs vibrant transit. Took Cal Train regularly, although it’s incredibly slow southbound after commute hours.
    Sadly, the three counties and the nature of the Joint Powers Board means that no one will be happy. Neither SF nor San Jose should complain about San Mateo Counties management given their disastrous records with Muni and VTA. Seriously, neither city could manage a Hot Dog Stand.
    If CalTrain had a brain, they would try and use the slack times to fast forward their improvements.
    What is clear is CT could handle more passengers and be far more convenient if they had faster expresses services throughout the day, especially into the later evening.
    I wish them luck.

  7. The math above is wrong.. Caltrain ridership is concentrated during peak hours. If Caltrain supports 33,500 people, each making two trips, then roughly 25,000-30,000 trips are happening during each peak 2hr period. That’s 12,500 to 15,000 trips per hour at peak. Not 2800.

  8. just pass the friggin tax already. 1/8 cents is nothing to not have four lanes of traffic clogging up the highways whenever you simply want to go to the next town

  9. I used to ride Caltrain to SF to my job at an SF hospital. My mom used to ride to her job at the state health department.

    All the people saying Caltrain is just a subsidy for rich tech workers are being really dishonest or else just plain ignorant.

    The truth is that people on the peninsula think that shutting down public transit will somehow protect their NIMBY neighborhoods from poor people.

    It’s the same people who refuse to consider changing zoning laws to allow for higher density housing.

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