A Caltrain worker walks by a locomotive at the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Caltrain explores SF, San Mateo, Santa Clara sales tax to fund electrification

The governing board overseeing Caltrain is considering a 2020 sales tax to fund its electrification and expansion efforts.

That tax would go before voters in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the length of the train’s route, with hopes of funding Caltrain service expansion benefitting thousands of peninsula commuters.

And early polling shows voters in those counties are receptive to it.

“The poll that we did as an agency was just going out and doing an early indicator of where things sit,” said Jeanine Bruins, who sits on the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board of Directors, which oversees Caltrain. She was addressing the body at its regular meeting May 2, where they reviewed the poll’s findings.

The 1/4 cent or 1/8 cent sales tax — which one they’d pursue, if any, has not yet been decided — would fund Caltrain’s Business Plan, a proposal to plan the transportation system’s growth along the peninsula in conjunction with different cities and agencies, ultimately resulting in a “long term service vision” for the corridor to define needed new stations, for instance.

Funding would also go toward Caltrain’s operating budget under its soon-to-come electrification plan. Though the plan to convert to electric trains by 2022 is mostly funded through local, state and federal funds already, Caltrain’s operating funds mostly come from its farebox, which depends on ridership, officials said.

That’s especially challenging as ridership numbers ebb and flow. In 2018 Caltrain’s ridership count was “back on the rise” by about 1.5 percent after a recent dip, according to the agency. In budget reports, however, the agency identified ridership and future dependence on farebox revenue as a “challenge.”

On that matter there was support from the public: Roughly two-thirds of voters support the sales tax, the poll conducted by EMC Research found.

Despite the strong numbers, any potential sales tax would be a hard lift with voters, said board director Charles Stone, who represents San Mateo County.

“I’d wager at least a days salary that a solid 75 percent or higher of the surveyed public has no idea that Caltrain doesn’t have a stable source of revenue other than fares,” Stone told his fellow board members. “People probably assume that this is funded somehow through a variety of taxes already. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

The survey reached 1,416 likely voters to ask them about a potential November 2020 sales tax, and 1,011 likely voters to ask about a potential March 2020 sales tax, conducting roughly 400 interviews in each county, weighted to reflect actual voter population distribution. Those interviews were conducted between March 25 and April 1 this year by phone and online, in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

“Big picture findings, voters in your three-county district have an interest and a willingness to invest in improved public transit, and to reduce traffic congestion,” said Sara LaBatt, from EMC research.

That last part was important, she said. Voters responded well when emphasizing Caltrain’s role in taking cars off the road, thereby easing traffic.

There was no statistical difference in supporting either a 1/4 cent or 1/8 cent sales tax. The difference in funding, however, is substantial. A 1/8 cent sales tax would rake in $100 million annually for the agency, whereas a 1/4 cent sales tax would raise $200 million annually.

Voters also responded to arguments about improving air quality, as well as increasing Caltrain’s speed, frequency and capacity.

While roughly 64 percent of likely voters would support the tax, that support drops significantly — down ten percentage points — when voters are exposed to potential “opposition messaging,” the poll found.

At the meeting some joint powers directors voiced concern that the measure is right on the boundary of feasibility.

One expert said they’re right to be concerned.

Any potential sales tax would face a harsh lift, said David Latterman, principal at Brick Circle Advisors. He worked on BART’s bond measure campaign in 2016, and works with myriad transportation agencies.

“As a transportation person, is it a good idea? Sure. We oughta be paying more for all kinds of public transportation,” but, he said, “as a political move it’s tough.”

The 2020 ballot will be crowded, he explained, as a presidential election will bring out more voters, who tend to skew younger and progressive. That means many cities and agencies will be seeking taxes on the ballot, which may see Caltrain lost in the shuffle.

And Santa Clara and San Mateo county voters tend to be drivers, he said, which may also make Caltrain’s prospects dim.

“Could it pass? Sure, I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” he said.


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