SFMTA Board passes ‘clean’ sales tax ballot measure to fund Caltrain

After a weeks-long impasse, tri-county leadership appears to have reached a compromise

A sales tax measure considered a lifeline for Caltrain’s future moved one step closer to the November ballot after the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted unanimously for its approval Wednesday.

If passed by voters, the ⅛-cent sales tax would generate roughly $108 million annually for Caltrain, which currently relies on farebox revenues and contributions from the three member counties — San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara — to operate.

Nearly two-thirds of voters support this simple sales tax, according to a Caltrain survey in June, but the measure has been the subject of a weeks-long political dogfight.

Though Caltrain is technically governed by the Joint Powers Board, composed of three representatives from each county, San Mateo County’s transit agency manages the daily operations of the rail agency, providing it with staff and resources and, critics say, enjoying special influence.

Debates about the rail agency’s governance have raged for years with no resolution. SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin told directors Wednesday it’s been a “longstanding” concern for tri-county leadership.

San Francisco Supervisors Shamann Walton, Aaron Peskin and Matt Haney worked with Santa Clara County leadership to craft their own version of the measure that would have limited the amount of tax-generated revenue directed towards Caltrain without supermajority approval of the Joint Powers Board. Once an agreement on governance reform was reached, the revenue would flow freely to the agency.

This measure was introduced and approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on July 28, though San Mateo County leaders vowed never to support it.

Passage requires approval from seven agencies: the board of supervisors in each of the counties plus their transit agencies as well as the Joint Powers Board.

Hope for the rail’s future was fading last week after the SFMTA Board failed to pass a different version of the measure which tied the one-eighth cent sales tax to changes in Caltrain’s governance structure.

Director Cheryl Brinkman was the lone dissenting vote, but with only four members currently on the board, the measure required unanimous support for passage.

“I think her no vote administered a shock to the system. People realized how serious this was,” SFMTA Director Steve Heminger said of the close negotiations that took place between the three counties over the last week.

Described as “clean,” this sales tax ballot measure doesn’t include any of the governance reform conditions included in the proposal put forth by the San Francisco supervisors.

However, the tri-county compromise included a series of governance recommendations that would be voted on by the Joint Powers Board as Caltrain’s governing body.

Provisions for the board include requiring six affirmative votes on any spending that would bring total expenditures above $40 million per fiscal year; appointing its own executive director by the end of 2021; reimbursement to SamTrans for its acquisition of Caltrain from the state; mandating appointment of an independent special counsel and auditor by November 30; and allowing for items to be put on the agenda at the request of just two board members.

There are just three days until the August 7 deadline to put a measure on the ballot, but all seven agencies required to sign off are expected to do so before week’s end.

San Mateo County, SamTrans, and the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors have also already approved the measure. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Santa Clara County’s transit agency and the Joint Powers Board will hold meetings later this week.

Two-thirds of voters in November would have to affirm the measure for it to be enacted.

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