Caltrain tax plan gains steam in San Mateo County

(Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Encouraging signs of support for sales tax ballot measures in San Mateo County could help provide Caltrain with a long-sought dedicated funding mechanism.

A recent survey found that 66 percent of San Mateo County voters would support a quarter-cent sales tax increase to provide funding for Caltrain and SamTrans. The poll, conducted at the behest of the San Mateo County Transit District, targeted residents likely to vote in the 2014 election. The transit district manages both SamTrans and Caltrain.

Caltrain, which has faced daunting budget deficits in recent years, survives on fare revenue, grants and funding contributions from its three partner agencies — SamTrans, Muni and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Caltrain officials have long said the current funding model is not sustainable.

Led by state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, regional officials have discussed the idea of putting a ballot measure before voters in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties that would establish a permanent funding source for Caltrain.

However, considering the daunting prospect of gaining two-thirds support from three counties, SamTrans and Caltrain are exploring a separate funding option that would only go before voters in San Mateo County.

When first asked, 63 percent of San Mateo County voters said they would support a quarter-cent sales tax increase to provide funding for SamTrans and Caltrain. And after pollsters presented context and information about the need for a dedicated funding source, that rate increased to 66 percent, said Jayme Ackemann, communications manager for Caltrain. Ackemann noted that opposition efforts to tax measures usually knock a few percentage points off support ratings come election time. For the proposal to pass, it would need two-thirds approval.

SamTrans currently receives about $60 million a year from a half-cent sales tax, meaning a quarter-cent measure would likely raise half that amount. Last year, Caltrain dealt with a $30 million shortfall with unsustainable one-time funding measures. SamTrans has had its own budget issues, which forced the agency to cut its funding contributions to Caltrain.

Ackemann stressed that the poll was conducted simply to provide options for both SamTrans and Caltrain. The agencies have not made decisions on when, or if, they will move forward with the San Mateo County-only option.

“We’re encouraged by people valuing our services,” Ackemann said. “We’ll be using this survey as a foundation for moving forward.”

Jessica Zenk, transportation director for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said a San Mateo County-supported sales tax increase could be a good midterm answer for Caltrain and SamTrans’ financial woes, but eventually a three-county solution will be necessary. The San Mateo County-only measure could provide crucial funds for Caltrain until its system is electrified in 2019, Zenk said.

Hill, however, said eschewing the San Mateo County vote in favor of the three-county approach is the best option for Caltrain. He said he is working on legislation to allow Caltrain to put the measure before voters in all three counties, possibly in 2014 or 2015.

“The main issue is the sustainability of Caltrain,” Hill said. “Going before all three counties is the best way to address those problems.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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