State legislators on Wednesday proposed a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to help fund Caltrain. (Ryan McNulty/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Legislators propose sales tax to help fund Caltrain

Caltrain is on the road closer to financial independence following the introduction of legislation Wednesday that would add a revenue source for the regional transit agency.

Senate Bill 797, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo and Santa Clara), would allow the governance that oversees Caltrain to place a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to fund the transit agency.

“Our region is an economic powerhouse for our state, but its continued growth is jeopardized if our residents cannot get back and forth to work, school and their families because our main transportation corridor cannot accommodate them,” Hill said in a statement.

Caltrain’s capital and operating budget relies on voluntary funding from the three counties that it serves: San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco.

Boosting Caltrain ridership through additional funding is widely seen in transportation circles as a way to combat ever-slower congestion along U.S. Highway 101, which some see as a boon to local businesses along the Peninsula.

At this point, “Highway 101 has become so congested that we’ve changed its name to the ‘101 Parking Lot,’” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino in a statement.

Though the measure offers a glimmer of hope for Caltrain to obtain more funding, the hurdle to place a sales tax on the ballot is high.

The authority overseeing Caltrain, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, would need to pass a tax proposal by two-thirds vote, which would then go before transportation authority boards of San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco for further approvals, followed by subsequent approval by the Board of Supervisors for each county. Only then would a sales tax go to the ballot, where it will require two-thirds voter approval.

The tax measure has wide support from politicians across the region, including co-authors state Sens. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and assemblymembers from San Jose, South San Francisco, Monterey and San Francisco.

“These funds are crucial to modernizing and improving our regional rail, which has been ignored and underfunded for decades,” said Wiener in a statement. “We need to get serious about improving gridlock on our highways.”

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