Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton levied an ultimatum that could impact Bay Area transit for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
Help change Caltrain for the better, he told one group, or San Francisco will drop support for an upcoming $100 billion regional mega-measure aimed at smoothing connections between public transit agencies for riders across the Bay Area.
Already, at least one transit official on the Peninsula has characterized Walton’s effort as “short-sighted.” Others in San Francisco have taken Walton’s side.
The “Faster Bay Area” measure would levy a 1-cent sales tax in the nine-county Bay Area to raise roughly $100 billion over 40 years to fund Bay Area transit agencies, aiming to strengthen their connections.
Taking a Muni bus to BART and connecting to AC Transit can be expensive, onerous, and slow, but is sometimes the most efficient public transit option for San Franciscans heading to the East Bay. Faster Bay Area aims to make that long trip shorter, easier to navigate, and affordable.
The Bay Area has 27 transit agencies that rarely work together smoothly, transportation experts have said publicly.
“‘Faster’ is the vision of a single, seamless transit system from the customer perspective,” said Stuart Cohen, a member of a committee leading the Faster Bay Area effort. “The vision is that we have this fragmented system. It’s going to take political will and money to integrate it into something that’s really seamless.”
A key partner in passing that mega-measure is San Francisco.
But Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents San Francisco’s southeastern neighborhoods, and other city leaders, also want Faster Bay Area to help reform Caltrain.
The agency shares staff with another transit entity, SamTrans, which holds the small-but-growing train system back from reaching its full potential, Walton argues. Caltrain ridership has tripled in the last decade — but officials want it to grow even more to help a booming region commute more efficiently.
Walton’s also got backing from San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who is the chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, an important purse doling out funding for San Francisco transit projects.
At the transportation authority board on Tuesday, Walton levied his proposal to Faster Bay Area’s leadership.
“We will require any revenue measure, at the state or regional level, include a clause that says Caltrain should separate from SamTrans in order to receive support from the county of San Francisco,” Walton said.
Caltrain and SamTrans sharing staff, Walton said, “is simply bad governance.”
Peskin also supported Walton’s proposal.
He was particularly concerned with the next construction phase of the Salesforce Transit Terminal, which will see newly electrified Caltrain vehicles run to the station in coming years. The transit terminal project itself went over budget, forcing the previous leadership to be ousted by San Francisco.
“It’s going to be very difficult for this county to support that measure until we have a regional governance entity,” Peskin said of Faster Bay Area. “If we’re really going to make Caltrain everything it can be we’re going to have to reset and regionalize that rail opportunity.”
It is unclear how many San Francisco officials support the pair of supervisors, but Walton intends to bring a non-binding policy resolution to the Board of Supervisors to put them on the record for or against his plan.
Cohen said the Faster Bay Area effort is trying not to spell out, in detail, every project the $100 billion would be spent on, since it is a far-reaching funding effort.
Responding to Walton’s request for Faster Bay Area to tilt the scales on Caltrain’s independence, Cohen said, “That just came up and we haven’t entertained it.”
Walton also serves as a director on The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board which governs Caltrain. His fellow director, Charles M. Stone, who is also a Belmont city councilmember, said Faster Bay Area could be transformative for the region’s transit, which could alleviate clogged roads and crushing traffic.
“To hold it hostage for some sort of power move, that may not be the best for the organization,” Stone said, “it seems short-sighted and strange.”
Additionally, Stone said, there is already an ongoing effort by Caltrain to analyze its own governance structure, which includes a workshop hosted by Caltrain on November 21.
“Candidly, things are moving along as they should,” he said. “Director Walton has to answer his own conscience regarding if Caltrain and the region should be held hostage over a desire to presuppose the outcome of a process that’s already underway.”