Opinion: Pro and con on Measure RR, the Caltrain tax

Below is a guest opinion piece in favor of Measure RR, the Caltrain sales tax. Under that is the Post’s editorial against the measure.

Pro

BY YORIKO KISHIMOTO

Measure RR is the ballot measure to provide dedicated funding for Caltrain.

Caltrain service is the essential backbone to sustainable transportation and walkable communities on the Peninsula.

Although we’ve been in the COVID-19 crisis since March, do you remember our gridlock situation before then? An hour to drive to San Jose? Giving up on trying to drive to San Francisco after 3 p.m.? Our local streets overrun by traffic? Our motorized vehicles were responsible for 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area should be smart enough to think and plan long-term. A quiet, electrified Caltrain with stable funding that runs all day with reasonable fares so people of all incomes can afford to ride it — that’s the goal.

Caltrain has never had dedicated funding. The bulk of its funding (70%) has come from fares, with the remaining public funding from three county partner transit agencies making voluntary contributions. This has led to periodic fiscal crises and an inadequate level of investment in Caltrain.

You may have some questions in your mind:

Governance: As part of the “deal” to put RR on the ballot, Caltrain board must agree by end of 2021 to develop a new governance structure to better include San Francisco and Santa Clara counties and hire independent counsel and auditor and for the region to reimburse San Mateo County for monies owed to them.

Affordability: As Caltrain tried to recover its costs by increasing fares, fares have indeed increased, putting it out of reach for some lower-income residents and workers. The board is launching a system of special fares for qualified users, which Measure RR can help fund.

Ridership: With COVID-19, ridership plummeted 95% and only emergency federal funding has kept Caltrain afloat, even as it slashed service. No one knows when the pandemic will be “over.” But we can guess that many workers will continue to telecommute, but most will have some hybrid schedule.
Responsibility and freedom: An oversight committee will ensure to the voters that the board uses the funding as promised. The upside to this long-term commitment by the voters for stable funding is that the board has the ability for the first time to plan and invest in the future.

How will the funding be spent? Per the measure’s wording, the revenue collected from the 1/8th-cent sales tax will cover the annual $30 million contributions from the three counties for operations funding plus $22 million for capital projects, and will provide roughly $50 million per year to build new infrastructure that will greatly increase the capacity and efficiency of Caltrain service. This will keep the equivalent of two additional freeway lanes’ worth of cars off the road.

The priorities are:

1. To support the operation of Caltrain service levels throughout the corridor from San Francisco to Gilroy;

2. To support the expansion of Caltrain peak hour service from six trains per hour per direction to eight trains per hour per direction, as well as the expansion of the Gilroy service to a minimum of five morning and five afternoon trains;

3. To develop and implement programs to expand access to Caltrain service and facilitate use of the system by passengers of all income levels;

4. To help leverage other local, regional, state and federal investments to advance capital projects necessary to implement the Caltrain Business Plan’s 2040 Service Vision, adopted by Caltrain on Oct. 3, 2019; and

5. To provide Caltrain with a steady stream of funding to support the annual operating, maintenance and capital needs of an electrified Caltrain service with increased frequency and capacity.

A “yes” vote on Measure RR is a vote for a more sustainable Peninsula and a vote for an essential public service and infrastructure. Go to RescueCaltrain.org for more information. Every “yes” vote will count — it’s important!

Yoriko Kishimoto is a Director on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and former Mayor of Palo Alto. She is also Chair of the Friends of Caltrain board of directors. She can be reached at yoriko12330@icloud.com.

Con

Daily Post Editorial

This is a new one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax that would last 30 years to fund Caltrain.

The letters RR, in our opinion, stand for Reverse Robinhood because this tax steals from the poor and gives to the rich.

Sales taxes are regressive. Poorer people pay a larger percentage of their disposable income on sales taxes than the rich. On the other hand, Caltrain riders are the wealthiest of public transit users in the Bay Area. Caltrain’s own fare study shows that 60% of its riders make over $100,000 and 23% over $200,000. Instead of taxing the poor, Caltrain should either raise fares or tax large employers who benefit from the commuter railroad.

The tax itself is an attempt by Caltrain to escape accountability. In fact, the CEO of Caltrain — currently former Redwood City politician Jim Hartnett — is hired and fired by the SamTrans board, which has no connection to the other two counties.

Most of Caltrain’s money comes from fares. But Caltrain typically needs another $20 million to $30 million every year to balance its budget. So Hartnett goes hat-in-hand to transit agencies in the three counties for funds to balance the budget. That’s the only time Santa Clara and San Francisco counties can exercise any control over Caltrain.

If RR is approved, Caltrain can stop asking the other two counties for money, avoiding any oversight. RR is a blank check — $108 million a year with no oversight.

After Caltrain replaces the $20 million to $30 million it gets from the three counties, what would it do with the remaining $78 million to $88 million from the tax?

Caltrain has made no binding commitments for how it will spend the windfall. They’re saying in so many words “trust us.”

If you don’t like how Caltrain spends it, tough luck. Nobody is directly elected to Caltrain’s board.

How does Caltrain spend its funds now? Hartnett’s pay and benefits for running Caltrain and SamTrans hit $462,936 in 2018, according to the nonpartisan public compensation website Transparent California. Not bad for a guy with no transportation management experience who didn’t even meet the qualifications of his job when he was hired.

Finally, this tax comes at a terrible time. The Covid lockdown recession has thrown tens of thousands of Peninsula residents out of their jobs. A shocking number of businesses have permanently closed. And despite all that, Caltrain hasn’t laid off one single employee. Yet Caltrain wants to raise your taxes.

The lockdown commercials say, “We’re all in this together.” Except for Caltrain.

To get your vote, Caltrain is threatening to close the railroad if RR isn’t approved. They’re bluffing, of course, because the last thing they want to do is give up their own paychecks. It’s a desperate scare tactic. If they’re going to pull stunts like that, why would you ever trust them with more money by approving this tax?

(Yes, we know Robin Hood is two words. You grammar cops, give us a break!)

Correction: The “con” editorial has been corrected to remove an error about the process for selecting the Caltrain board.

10 Comments

  1. Yorkio brings up some good points, but I wonder when (or if) riders will return to Caltrain given the concerns about catching the Covid virus. I think a lot of people will be shunning public transportation until this virus goes away, which might be never. If Caltrain were to shut down for a while, I don’t think it will be a big problem. I read recently that there were 15 people on a rush-hour train when it crashed into a person on the tracks. I don’t see why Caltrain can’t shut down for a while and run buses for people who need rides. Anyway, I’m voting No.

  2. Let’s shut down Caltrain and replace it with BART. The most expensive part of building a rail line is acquiring the property, and there would be no cost since the Caltrain line is already owned by the public. A BART line on the Caltrain tracks could link BART in Millbrae with the new BART station in San Jose. Why throw good money after bad? I’m voting NO on RR in the hopes that Caltrain closes and we get a chance to seriously consider bringing in BART.

    • BART can’t run on Caltrain’s tracks. It’s a different track gauge, and BART requires grade separation, since the third rail is electrified. That means fences, tunnels, and elevated tracks to keep BART’s lines above, below, or otherwise away from people and street traffic. There are no railroad crossings with BART. And that makes any BART extension incredibly expensive, hundreds of millions of dollars per mile. I’m not joking. Look it up. Right-of-way acquisition costs are only like 10-20% of the total cost to extend BART. BART’s operating costs are also higher than Caltrain’s, considering the ridership. In 2019, BART’s operating budget was $922 million for 411k weekday riders, compared to Caltrain’s $150 million for 67k weekday riders. BART is also more heavily subsidized, getting less of its budget from fares and more from taxpayers. Whatever your feelings about this tax increase, replacing Caltrain with BART is no answer. BART is tremendously more expensive any way you look at it.

      • Thanks Jacob, that is true. Just about everything with BART is custom designed which brings up the cost. Additionally, there is currently no representation on the BART Board of Directors from San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. The existing BART counties (SF, Alameda and Contra Costa) have sales tax and property taxes dedicated to BART. Any more BART into SM or SC Counties will require annexation into the BART district and additional taxes.

        BART needs to focus on the core system and serving the people that pay for BART.

        Replacing Caltrain will give us a lower capacity system with no express/limited stop trains, so all trips from SJ to SF will take approximately 80-90 minutes. Also, BART refuses to offer monthly passes.

        There is nothing to keep Caltrain from running service as frequent as BART does, other than the lack of dedicated funding and unwillingness of Caltrain to run it.

  3. Shut down this expensive aged old transportation system for the super rich!
    Why should we pay to give them another option……if they really wanted it, they would pay for it. They pay for over priced houses!

  4. The three counties Caltrain serves have a combined population of 3.5 million people. Caltrain, when it was at its height, was carrying 35,000 people a day. That’s equal to 1% of the population. Why should 99% of the population pay a tax to support the 1%? These Caltrain riders can take the bus for all I care.

  5. I would have voted yes on RR if there was any kind of evidence of shared sacrifice from Caltrain. Right now most of us are hurting economically and Caltrain is asking for more in taxes even though it hasn’t made any cuts or layoffs.

    • Caltrain has made cuts in service, however, Caltrain has received federal stimulus funding, this funding stipulates that agencies receiving the stimulus are not to furlough or lay off employees as the stimulus is intended to keep people working. So Caltrain is not able to layoff anyone. The stimulus funding will be depleted by the end of the year and there is no guarantee of a new stimulus package.

      Caltrain is an essential public service and needs to continue operating. Caltrain provides a great alternative to driving. People will be going back to work on-site, traffic congestion will increase, Caltrain will be here to help keep the peninsula on the move.

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