What a 2014 Santa Clara County ballot measure would mean for Caltrain?

On Friday April 25, the San Jose Mercury News reported that unexpectedly positive polling results could prompt Santa Clara County to put a transportation sales tax on the ballot in 2014, instead of 2016, as they had been thinking before the poll. A high level poll by the The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, surveying 600 likely Santa Clara County voters, showed that support for a transportation sales tax would be 73 percent in Santa Clara County, well above the two thirds required to pass.

A potential ballot measure could cover projects like road maintenance and pothole repair (particularly needed in San Jose), more funding for BART to Silicon Valley, and investments in Caltrain safety and capacity. A blog post by Carl Guardino, CEO of the Leadership Group has more details on the poll.

According to Bena Chang of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the details are not yet final, but there will be meetings with partners and stakeholders during the next several weeks. The time frame for 2014 is extremely tight – the measure would need to be filed with the registrar of voters by August 8, after a public process either through VTA’s Board or the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Further polling is needed to confirm the amount of the tax and the projects to pay for with the funding. A quarter-cent sales tax would raise roughly $3.7 billion in Santa Clara County.

Projects for Caltrain could include a package of projects that build on on basic electrification to deliver greater capacity, reliability, and safety, such as:
* replacing the remaining 25% of diesel trains for faster performance and lower costs
* level boarding for faster service, greater reliability, and greater accessibility
* platform extensions to enable longer trains and more riders
* grade separations for improved safety and reliability, and intersection traffic relief

Funds contributing this package of improvements would be excellent, since continued strong growth in ridership would consume the capacity improvements provided by basic electrification.

Santa Clara County currently has partial funding for the Mountain View Rengstorff grade separation and no others. Information from Caltrain’s electrification environmental impact report and blended system studies show that increased service will provide increasing pressure on at-grade crossings.

One question is how Santa Clara County would prioritize the grade separations. The County could set up a process similar to San Mateo County, where the SMC Transportation Authority has a competitive grant program to fund grade separations. That way, the specifics don’t need to be decided in advance of the ballot measure.

Given the legal challenges to high speed rail, funding for Caltrain could potentially also serve as a backstop in the unwelcome event that the High Speed Rail funding for electrification goes away, and federal funds can’t be repurposed. A ballot measure could be written to enable the Santa Clara County funding to backstop basic electrification funding. It wouldn’t be enough to replace the $650Million from High Speed Rail but would be a notable help in plugging the gap.

If Santa Clara County really does go for a ballot measure in 2014, that leaves an open question of when San Mateo County would match the investments. The San Mateo County voters approved a sales tax increase last November which is contributing to SamTrans and helping with Caltrain stability. San Francisco is planning ballot measures in November of 2014 as well as 2016 for capital and operating funding including Caltrain.

This seems like good news, including the concept of funding a reasonable package of Caltrain capacity/reliability improvements, and a backstop for HSR risk.

What this does not do is align all 3 Caltrain counties in the same year and establish funding stability. If the Leadership Group and Santa Clara County do not make the very tight deadline for 2014, this could be an opportunity for 2016.

What do you think?