Caltrain dedicated funding won’t be on the ballot yet in 2018; interim solution ideas

At its October 5 board meeting, Caltrain staff and board acknowledged that the â…› cent sales tax, authorized by SB797, which was signed by the governor this month, will not go on the ballot in 2018.

The bill is written to require the support of 7 policy boards: each of the three partner counties and their transit funding agencies (San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara), plus the Caltrain board. Once on the ballot, the tax measure would need to be passed by two thirds of voters in all three counties (not two thirds in each county).

Two of the counties, San Francisco and San Mateo, are working on local transportation funding measures they would like to get on the ballot in November 2018, and do not want the Caltrain measure competing.  

Meanwhile, Caltrain is working on a business plan which will give voters a clearer picture of what improvements their funds will pay for, including a roadmap of future needs, so voters will also understand what additional improvements will need future rounds of funding.  Board members including Pine, Brinkman, Gillett and Bruins strongly supported using the business plan to guide the content of a ballot measure.

Also, the June 2018 ballot will carry a different transportation funding measure, the Regional Measure 3 bridge toll increase which would fund a variety of Bay Area transportation projects including some good Caltrain network projects.

Why this measure?

While the Caltrain staff and board strongly agreed with the need for stable funding for Caltrain, the board discussion raised questions about the specifics of SB797.

One fundamental question raised at the board meeting was whether the funding for the ballot measure would supplement or replace funding that has been coming from county partners (there wasn’t a clear answer).

The board discussion surfaced the unusual way the tax was originally proposed.  When Board Member Gee asked “why is this ballot measure ⅛ cent as opposed to some other amount”, General Manager Hartnett replied “this was not developed with Caltrain staff. This [the recommended amount] was the result of a question in a Silicon Valley Leadership Group poll, and we have not seen the poll.”

Hartnett noted that the poll had favorable results, with over 70% favorable in each of the 3 counties, according to SVLG, which encouraged SVLG to bring the measure quickly to the legislature. Chris O’Connor of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group shared at the board meeting that SVLG had talked to Caltrain years before about this sort of measure, and had polled on similar questions before (But those discussions would have been before Hartnett had started as GM).

Board Member Bruins expressed concern that the discussion about the specifics of the bill hadn’t come to the board earlier, to discuss terms [such as the amount of the tax and the approval process] and whether to recommend amendments.

The process discussion reminds us of the bumpy but eventually successful process to bring a transportation ballot measure to Santa Clara County VTA.  The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, polls in hand, were eager to put a measure on the ballot in 2014, with an accelerated timeline to create an expenditure plan. But the VTA board wanted a more public and deliberative process. The result was the successful passage of Measure B in 2016.

Caltrain’s budget before stable funding – ominous signs and potential solutions

The SB797 tax isn’t going on the ballot in 2018, so Caltrain and its partners will need to balance a budget without a new funding source in the meantime.   And there are ominous signs from VTA, whose ridership numbers published at that agency’s October 5 board meeting showed bus ridership down 7.6% year to date, and light rail ridership down 14.7%. Meanwhile, the transit network schedule overhaul that VTA had carefully planned to increase ridership and revenue has been deferred until the new BART stations open in Milpitas and Berryessa, and those openings have been rescheduled for June 2018, after earlier projections anticipated a 2017 date.

One potential interim solution could come out of the successful Sacramento legislative session, which passed SB1, a gas tax increase which provides funding for congested corridors including the Peninsula corridor with 101/Caltrain, and a Cap and Trade extension which continues funding for transit and intercity rail “transformative capital projects”. 

With Measure B, VTA had raised $300Million toward its share of Caltrain Modernization 2.0, the program to lengthen and raise platforms to allow for full electrification, longer trains, and level boarding, providing more capacity, faster speed, and lower operating costs.  With funding from one of the new state sources, the State of California could rebate VTA for some of the money it raised toward CalMod 2.0, and with a supermajority board vote, VTA could use the funds for its share of Caltrain partner funding. This could stabilize Caltrain’s budget and accelerate full electrification.

At the October board meeting, Seamus Murphy of Caltrain had mentioned that the agency would seek state funds to accelerate CalMod 2.0, so the VTA rebate may be a workable solution for the interim budget challenge.

Unfortunately, the Saratoga resident’s lawsuit that is currently blocking measure B funds is an obstacle to this potential Caltrain budget solution, along with road repaving, bicycle network improvements, and many other needs that VTA had planned to move forward with Measure B funding.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year, but the suit is being appealed to the 6th District Court of Appeal.  Meanwhile, money started to flow in April, and is being held in an escrow account. If the lawsuit is still dragging on in the Spring, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee may be needed to step in and prevent another round of Caltrain emergency fare increases, maintenance cuts, or even service cuts.

 

By Kabelleger / David Gubler (http://www.bahnbilder.ch) - Own work: http://bahnbilder.ch/picture/7847, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14816326

By Kabelleger / David Gubler (http://www.bahnbilder.ch) – Own work: http://bahnbilder.ch/picture/7847, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14816326