SamTrans announces poll results – electrification is popular; a ballot measure would pass, barely

At its board meeting on Thursday, SamTrans announced the results of polling that it conducted in June.  According to the poll, a ballot measure to support Caltrain and SamTrans would pass, barely, at the 66% threshold required in California.   The transit agency is considering a ballot measure on the 2014 ballot to address the underlying financial problems.

The poll found stronger support for a 1/4 cent sales tax to support Caltrain and SamTrans than for a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain alone.   High priorities for voters include reducing traffic, providing stable funding for Caltrain, supporting transit for the elderly and disabled, and supporting infrastructure.

The poll also showed that Caltrain electrification is massively popular, with 79% of voters in favor.  The controversy over High Speed Rail in recent years has not blunted the overwhelming support for cleaner, faster, more frequent service.

Voters expressed greater support for the tax after the poll asked voters questions about their priorities and values transit service.   This strongly suggests that a ballot measure would get better results if there was a campaign to encourage voters to consider the benefits of transit service.   Transit supporters have between now and 2014 to raise awareness.

Fortunately, transit measures have had an 86% success rate in the last year according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.  In November, 19 more transit measures are on the ballot.   Many jurisdictions are going to local voters to pay for transit, since state budgets are strapped and federal transit spending has not increased.

Caltrain doesn’t have stable funding, and the funding partner that has been in the worst shape in recent years is SamTrans.  The last time SamTrans did a comprehensive financial review in the summer of 2011, it was expected to be bankrupt in 2015.  The next comprehensive financial review is expected this winter. SamTrans is obligated to pay back the bonds for the “BART to SFO project.” The debt service is $24 million per year, and SamTrans has been taking $10million from reserves each year.

So there are two main approaches to fund Caltrain. One is to have a tax in all 3 counties that Caltrain serves, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Another approach is to have a tax in San Mateo County only, which would stabilize SamTrans.   If this approach is taken, it would also be important to strengthen the Joint Powers agreement to fund Caltrain. Even if SamTrans is stabilized, SF Muni or Santa Clara VTA could be next – the agreement would need to be changed so that problems in any of the 3 partners don’t risk crashing Caltrain’s finances in any given year.