San Francisco Supervisors call for Caltrain governance review to support major network expansion

Does Caltrain need any organizational changes to be ready to expand ridership 4x by 2040?  The San Francisco Board of Supervisors think so, according to a resolution passed on May 21.  

The resolution is anticipating an upcoming discussion about Caltrain governance options, in the context of Caltrain’s business plan. The Caltrain board is expected to provide in high-level direction for the business plan through 2040 at its upcoming meeting in July.

The SFBOS resolution was put forward by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who also chairs San Francisco’s transportation funding board (SFCTA) and Supervisor Shamann Walton, who serves on the Caltrain board.

In order to decipher what this means, it is helpful to look at:

  • What problems and issues is the resolution seeing to address?
  • What types of solutions are the BOS thinking about?
  • How are the BOS looking to bring about solutions?
  • Are these the right set of problems to solve, and the right proposed solutions?

What problem is SF seeking to solve? Ability to deliver big projects and big ridership

The preamble to the resolution – the “whereas” clauses – talks about the set of major regional investments that will be needed to be able to support pent-up demand for major increases in ridership on the Caltrain corridor; including the Downtown Extension to the Salesforce Transbay Terminal, grade separations and passing infrastructure to increase corridor capacity, and upgrades to Diridon station allowing it to serve many more regional rail trips.   

The resolution also refers to the need for the Caltrain corridor to serve as the backbone for megaregional and statewide connections extending to Sacramento and Monterey, and to Southern California in partnership with High Speed Rail. The resolution refers to congestion relief and greenhouse gas reduction goals that would be met with greatly increased regional, megaregional, and state rail use.

Supervisor Peskin has been raising questions about agencies’ ability to deliver major transformative transit projects in other related contexts. Last year, Peskin called for a governance review of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the single-purpose agency that has been in charge of the Transbay Terminal and Downtown Extension. Peskin has proposed that Caltrain might take charge of that project, which is projected to increase Caltrain ridership by over 25% when it is completed.   The first phase of the Transbay Terminal project, which created the station, was very late, over budget, and delivered a station building with structural flaws that needed repairing.

What types of governance solutions?

The resolution title calls for a “New Organizational Form to Support the Future of Caltrain.”

The resolution body states “That the City and County of San Francisco supports a process to determine the appropriate agency and governance framework to lead the next generation of regionally significant projects and endeavors in the rail corridor between San Francisco and Gilroy….”

The SFBOS is calling for a “strengthened, independent Caltrain agency.”  So, they envision a standalone agency – they are not envisioning solutions that would merge Caltrain with other transit providers, say BART (or ACE and Capitol Corridor, or Muni, SamTrans and VTA).

The SFBOS is calling for “a process to determine the appropriate agency and governance framework” to lead the next generation of regionally significant projects.   So, they are questioning whether SamTrans is the right agency to manage Caltrain, and possibly whether the current board structure is the right board.

How to bring about solutions – use funding as leverage

The preamble mentions Caltrain’s lack of a dedicated revenue source, and mentions that Caltrain is seeking to potentially put a measure on the ballot for stable funding in 2020.  In order to put a measure on the ballot, Caltrain needs acceptance by 7 boards, including the Caltrain board itself, the partner transit agencies, and the partner counties. San Francisco’s support is required to get a measure on the ballot. The resolution implies that San Francisco’s support for a ballot measure could depend on the next steps in the governance discussion.

Are these the right set of problems and proposed solutions?

The main concern and goal for the resolution is that Caltrain should have “the capacity to lead the next generation of regionally significant projects and endeavors for the benefit of Caltrain district communities and the San Francisco Bay Area.”   

This is a reasonable concern and a good goal.  Since Caltrain was established as an entity when the 3 county partners bought the corridor from the state, Caltrain has been planning its next steps from year to year, without the stability to look forward.  Now with electrification under way, it is time to look forward and build the capacity to be able to use electrification as the basis for growth.

There are some other issues that this resolution doesn’t address.

  • The resolution addresses the need for more financial resources to deliver the service vision, but it doesn’t directly address the cumbersome 7-board process currently required to raise funding.  
  • The resolution does not talk about the the importance of fare and schedule coordination in order to improve customer convenience. This is a governance issue that Caltrain can’t handle alone, but is a barrier to being able to achieve the higher levels of growth.

As for the solutions, the resolution is questioning whether SamTrans is the right agency to manage Caltrain.   

Would swapping out SamTrans as the managing agency for Caltrain solve any of these problems:

  • Delivering big capital projects and high levels of service
  • Ability to raise additional rounds of funding for multiple phases of growth
  • Providing seamlessly coordinated regional transit service

Would SFMTA (long-delayed Central Subway) or VTA (delayed BART-Silicon Valley) do a better job? Are there other solutions that would be better?

What do you think? Can you think of other issues that would benefit from better governance? What solutions would you recommend, and why?