Caltrain ridership has dropped 95 percent in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Buoyed by public support, Caltrain one-step closer to considering 1/8-cent sales tax

Agency’s governing body will meet Thursday to discuss new poll results and future of ballot measure

Nearly two-thirds of voters in the three-county region served by Caltrain support a sales tax to help it survive the pandemic and increase service, according to a poll to be presented to the agency’s governing board this week.

If passed, a sales tax would help fund the commuter rail agency’s goal of running 168 trains each weekday between San Jose and San Francisco by 2022, up from the 92 daily trips it offered before shelter-in-place.

When the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board meets Thursday at 8:30 a.m., members will hear a presentation from polling agency EMC Research detailing the results of the survey conducted last month, a precursor to a vote next month on whether to put the measure on November’s ballot.

Approximately 1,255 likely voters received email-to-web and telephone outreach during a seven-day period in June. Of the respondents, 63.3% indicated support for the tax increase. When learning more about what the tax would fund, support jumped to 70.9%.

Caltrain serves San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, but the bulk of its operating funds — 70% — come from the fare box. The remainder, plus all funding for capital projects, is supposed to come from equal contributions from each of the three counties. However, that number varies year-to-year based on budget realities, leaving the agency beholden to the predictable unpredictability of government finance.

With ridership down around 95% since the beginning of the shelter-in-place order and only 55% of formerly frequent riders saying they’d return to their regular use patterns, the agency is all but desperate to find an additional funding stream. The proposed tax measure would generate an estimated $108 million annually.

State legislation passed in 2017 permits the Caltrain Board of Directors to put a sales tax measure on the ballot, provided it gets authorization from each of the three counties’ boards of supervisors as well as their respective transit agencies.

If it is put on the ballot, two-thirds of voters from all three counties would then have to vote in favor of the tax for it to pass.

All required agencies have approved the placement of the ballot measure except the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Caltrain Board itself. Both are scheduled to hold votes ahead of the August 7 electoral deadline.

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