A self-funded, independent future for Caltrain?

Joint Powers Board approves governance reforms and a sales tax ballot measure

The Caltrain of the future could be self-funded, electrified, staffed by its own employees and an independent auditor, counsel and CEO, and readily accessible to a more economically diverse ridership.

This new Caltrain would no longer be operated by the San Mateo County Transit District, although SamTrans, and San Mateo County would be reimbursed for the purchase of the rail from the state in 1992.

Considered a fizzled dream just last week after participating counties failed to reach an agreement over language for a tax measure, this scenario emerged from two parallel actions approved Thursday by the Joint Powers Board, the rail network’s governing body, in a last-minute flurry of actions intended to save Caltrain.

A four-person ad-hoc committee with board members from each of the counties worked for the better part of a week to bring these dual resolutions to the table.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who sits on the joint powers board, described them as the end result of tireless work by folks “who clearly prioritize Caltrain.”

First, the board unanimously approved a sales tax ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would levy a one-eighth sales tax on residents of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, creating a dedicated source of funding for the financially beleaguered rail agency.

Second, it committed to governance reforms to reduce the influence of SamTrans and facilitate a more equal voice for all three counties in key decisions.

Provisions ultimately agreed upon include requiring six affirmative votes on any spending that would bring total expenditures above $40 million per fiscal year; appointing an independent executive director by the end of 2021; reimbursement to SamTrans for its acquisition of Caltrain from the state; mandating appointment of an independent special counsel by January 31, 2021, and appointing auditors for finances and performance by the next fiscal year; and allowing for items to be put on the agenda at the request of just two board members.

Tensions among the counties remained, however, and the agreement was preceded by lengthy debate between the directors on the particulars of “governance structure and procedures.” Director Charles Stone from the SamTrans Board was particularly vocal about protecting the interests of his agency, insuring it received adequate reimbursement and clarifying whether the broad stroke language was intended to preempt a change to the board’s current structure of three seats per county.

Stone ultimately was the lone dissenting vote on the governance resolution, though he did vote in favor of putting the sales tax measure on the November ballot

Directors spent more than three hours picking over the vocabulary of the resolution, with those were not on the ad-hoc committee voicing frustration with the assumption that its recommendations should be taken as a given by the rest of the board members.

“We can continue in a certain fashion, but if this resolution is not approved by this body there will more than likely not be a tax going on the ballot. I want to be very clear about that as we dissect, play semantics, and as we continue to do things that aren’t productive moving forward,” Walton, who was part of the ad-hoc committee, said of the extensive wordsmithing to various parts of the resolution.

When challenged by colleagues, Walton regularly reminded them of the laborious efforts that went into the resolution.

Tension also arose over the idea two directors can put an item on the agenda, a response to frustration that SamTrans staff currently has the ability to block an initiative from discussion in front of the board.

“The intent here was to make sure you talk at least one other person into your good idea and that, therefore, could be put on the agenda,” Director Cindy Chavez of Santa Clara County said. “This is a low bar, easy action we can take that demonstrates we want everybody to be able to engage and allow people to feel like they have equal footing on the board”

At the Board of Supervisorslevel in San Francisco and Santa Clara, a supervisor can directly introduce an item on the agenda without interference from staff, though there are ways for colleagues to block it.

Chair David Pine clarified the goal, as well, is not to mandate staff resources or a vote, but just to provide the opportunity for directors to present something to fellow board members.

Director Steve Heminger, from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, ultimately issued a call for compromise, noting the high risk of sinking the entire process for the sake of semantics.

“I would plead for some deference to the work of the committee,” he said, adding later “now the hard part begins.”

A three-person committee appointed by Pine will develop a number of ideas for how to effectively achieve these reforms for the board to consider. It will incorporate director, community and other stakeholder feedback, and it may also bring in the help of a consultant to draft options.

Members are Ron Collins, mayor of San Carlos, Jeanne Bruins, a Los Altos City council member and Santa Clara County transit agency board member, and Monique Zmuda, San Francisco’s mayoral appointee to the Joint Powers Board and longtime city finance expert.

Walton, a significant presence in the debate, was notably excluded from the roster. Appearing upset, he noted the inherent “inequities” that emerge when a committee has “two elected officials and one person who serves the bureaucracy,” adding he has great respect for Zmuda.

Thursday’s meeting comes after weeks of public feuding between leadership from San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties over whether a sales tax proposal should be tied to changes in the structure of Caltrain.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, supported by Santa Clara County and its transit agency, argued in favor of terms that would condition a certain amount of the sales tax revenues on governance changes, whereas San Mateo County, SamTrans and, ultimately, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, were opposed.

The impasse threatened to run the entire project off the rails, which requires approval from the board of supervisors and transit agencies from each of the three counties as well as from the Joint Powers Board.

Directors voiced platitudes and public commenters commended collaboration, but the weeks-long clash clearly left scars.

“To be blunt, we’re all going to be rebuilding our trust with each other,” Chavez said.

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