Caltrain’s future in jeopardy after supervisors block sales tax measure

Roughly 90 minutes into Tuesday’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, local transportation advocacy group Seamless Bay Area issued a panicked call on Twitter: “The SF Board of Supervisors is about to debate whether to enable the Caltrain ballot measure – or let it die today. If that happens, Caltrain risks shutdown.”

The communique urged supporters to provide public testimony by phone. However, the debate expected by Seamless and other transportation advocates in the City never materialized.

Instead, Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton declined to introduce legislation on a ⅛-cent sales tax ballot measure that would have provided Caltrain with approximately $108 million each year, a financial lifeboat that might have helped keep the agency operating despite a 95% drop in revenue and crippling decline in farebox revenue that accounts for nearly 70% of its overall operating budget.

Their decision, which leaves Caltrain’s long-term fate in doubt, reflects an ongoing dispute over how exactly the rail agency should be governed.

Walton, who serves on the Caltrain Joint Powers Board and represents a district that’s home to two Caltrain stations, said Wednesday he could not support the measure when “San Francisco has no voice,” referring to the fact that the rail network is managed and operated by San Mateo County’s transit agency, SamTrans. He argued the three regional powers involved in running the agency do not have equal power in making key decisions such as hiring or firing the CEO or resolving disputes.

Walton has advocated for governance reform in years past, asking for language to untangle the Caltrain from Samtrans to be included in a “Faster Bay Area” measure, which would have levied a 1-cent sales tax in the nine regional counties to raise roughly $100 billion over the next 40 years to fund transit agencies. That measure was never put before voters.

Last Thursday’s Caltrain board meeting ended in a demonstrative stand-off between representatives from San Mateo and San Francisco. Walton described the outcome as San Francisco being told its “opinions and concerns don’t matter.”

‘Wasting our time’

According to Peskin, he worked over the weekend with Walton and their other counterparts in the two partner counties to salvage an agreement.

Had they achieved a “tacit” understanding of how to begin disentangling Caltrain from SamTrans before the Board of Supervisors met Tuesday, Peskin said, he would’ve referred the measure to committee where negotiations around specific governance changes could have continued.

“What became abundantly clear Monday night was that we were all just wasting our time,” Peskin said of the negotiation’s last minute unraveling.

The Caltrain sales tax legislation was expected to be sent to committee Tuesday for debate and, if approved, go before the entire Board of Supervisors for a vote later this month. But Tuesday was the last scheduled meeting day the board could refer the measure in order to make the August 7 deadline for November ballot measures.

The measure would have needed approval from the transit boards and boards of supervisors in each of the three counties served by Caltrain, as well as by the agency’s governing body itself, the Peninsula Joint Powers Board.

Ian Griffiths, co-founder of Seamless Bay Area, called the process “really frustrating,” and said the complicated maze of required approvals made the measure “vulnerable” to this kind of legislative and bureaucratic confusion.

Caltrain, the country’s seventh largest railroad, carried approximately 60,000 commuters daily up and down the Peninsula pre-pandemic and was poised to begin a $2 billion electrification and expansion project. Now, it’s more likely the agency will significantly reduce service by the end of this year.

Many of the roughly 10 people who testified during public comment in favor of putting the measure on the ballot agreed with frustrations around San Francisco’s lack of equal voice on the Joint Powers Board and even conceded a sales tax isn’t ordinarily their preferred method of raising money. However, those same individuals emphasized the need to prioritize Caltrain’s survival over these questions for the time being.

“SF Transit Riders is not generally in favor of sales tax measures as they’re economically regressive, but Caltrain needs a dedicated funding source,” the organization’s acting executive director Cat Carter said in an email after the meeting. “We want to see Caltrain increase service, connect better with other transit agencies and services, and provide more accessible fares. None of this happens without funding.”

Frustration quickly mounted among many advocates and activists after the meeting that there’d been no public debate on the measure. Some supervisors even took to social media to tell constituents they hadn’t been informed of the deadline.

‘Tough decisions’

Both Peskin and Walton said their opposition isn’t just about governance. They highlighted the imperative to direct severely limited resources to serve those with the highest needs.

The average Caltrain rider makes an average of $120,000 annually, according to Walton.

“This whole notion that Caltrain isn’t going to run without this ⅛-cent sales tax is malarkey,” Peskin told the San Francisco Examiner Wednesday. “This is a great public transportation service that primarily moves affluent people […] and as we are struggling with moving essential workers and people from communities of concern, there are some tough decisions we are going to have to ask ourselves.”

Walton described this moment as “a bad time for a tax to be on the ballot” in San Francisco, adding he was in discussions with state legislators to possibly put a tax on the ballot next year.

Peskin, who also chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said the Board of Supervisors has historically been “reticent” to support sales taxes.

“They’re disproportionately borne by the lowest income individuals in our society, and they have the least impact on the wealthiest members of our society,” he said.

When asked about any communication issued from his office, Walton said “no specific communication” had come out ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Though he did say the idea of a sales tax was discussed at a number of meetings last year, and that his colleagues were aware of the years-long ongoing debate.

Peskin reminded press conference attendees that the mayor or any other supervisor could have introduced the legislation, too, but chose not to do so.

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