The blue memo: San Jose mayor seeks funding leverage to force Caltrain governance reform

Last week, San Jose City Council voted in favor of a solid set of recommendations regarding Caltrain’s business plan, encouraging active pursuit of plans and funding for high ridership, strategies and organizational changes to achieve a seamless system with integrated fares, schedules, and regional connections, and encouraging equity analysis to identify opportunities to diversify ridership beyond Caltrain’s currently largely affluent rider base. 

Just before last week’s Council meeting, there was a new memo issued by the Mayor – a single paragraph on a sheet of blue paper – making even stronger points about the need to make Caltrain’s governance more accountable.  But, the way the memo was worded could entrench and worsen the worst parts of Caltrain’s unstable governance – and prevent potential improvements – instead of opening the door to a stronger, more accountable, more capable, more integrated system.

The brief memo reads as follows: “Direct staff to return to Council with a resolution that makes support for additional local or regional investment in the Caltrain system contingent on reform of the Caltrain governance model to enable substantially greater accountability of Caltrain management to each of the three partner agencies, and ultimately to the residents and taxpayers of Santa Clara County.”

  1. Direct staff to return to Council with a resolution… 
  2.  … that makes support for additional local or regional investment in the Caltrain system contingent…
  3. … .on reform of the Caltrain governance model 
  4. …. to enable substantially greater accountability of Caltrain management
  5. … to each of the three partner agencies, and ultimately to the residents and taxpayers of Santa Clara County

Let’s break this down….

1)  Direct staff to return with a resolution. This is an opportunity to focus on the good elements of the memo – goals of upgrading governance, strengthening management accountability, and adding a timeline, while de-emphasizing the elements which, deliberate or not, seem to recommend a very specific sort of governance reform that could worsen some of Caltrain’s greatest weaknesses.

3) Reform of the Caltrain governance model.  The heart of the resolution, this could be a good thing.  Caltrain’s commissioned organizational assessment observed that maintaining the status quo was not an option, and recommended assessing a set of alternatives to strengthen management accountability and governance.  But that report also downplayed the urgency of making changes.

4) Greater accountability of Caltrain management.  This is also a good thing – the Business Plan Service Vision sets Caltrain up to take on goals more challenging than the past – increasing ridership by 3-4x, increasing service frequency including during the day, evening and weekend; while working on construction projects including changing platforms for level boarding, corridor grade separations, major station projects, and the need to manage construction projects while running the system.  It would be valuable to have management accountability to a clear set of shared goals to achieve the service vision.

5) Greater accountability… to each of the three partner agencies.  EACH of the three partner agencies.  The memo’s language doesn’t say, make Caltrain’s management accountable to the goals of the shared service vision.  That would be good. The language says, “to each of the partner agencies.”

Over the last decade that your blogger has been observing, the three partner agencies have treated Caltrain budget decisions as a competitive game.  Ordinary decisions about annual operating and maintenance budgets become opportunities for negotiating leverage for some or another local objective. The outcome can be service cuts, fare increases, reduced maintenance with reduced reliability, or some combination or the above.  

The JPA has been operating more like a circular firing squad, except the victims of the shots are riders, who pay the price in expensive, unreliable transit. 

The wording of the memo seems to propose adding a new level of instability – in addition to the ability to hang up budgets, each JPA member would also be able to threaten to fire the CEO as leverage to achieve a variety of local goals. 

5)  Each of the three partner agencies.   When the memo was introduced by Council Member Jimenez in Mayor Liccardo’s absence, Council Member Jimenez said that he did not believe that the Memo favored any particular type of governance.  However, the wording seems to favor retaining a Joint Powers Authority structure.   

One of the alternative governance options outlined in the Organizational Assessment is to change Caltrain from a Joint Powers Authority with board members who represent the separate partners to a Special District.  The Organizational Assessment observes that a special district would likely provide access to lower cost financing (p. 81). A district would provide greater budget stability only if Caltrain had a dedicated tax to fully replace member agency funding.  A Special District whose leaders came from different places along the corridor might still have board debates about local preferences, but could have more accountability to shared goals if they do not have a structural role to represent their appointing agency, 

If a Joint Powers Authority is maintained, it needs to have a better mechanism for dispute resolution, since the JPA is currently functioning like a couple in which the partners regularly threaten divorce over decisions about remodeling the house. There has to be some functional way to govern a core piece of the transit system with better ways of addressing conflicts than threatening affordability and reliability for riders. 

2)… that makes support for additional local or regional investment in the Caltrain system contingent…

There is a positive and a negative way to interpret and implement this.  

A regional transit funding measure is in the works – bringing opportunities to fund regional public transportation with policies that improve the coordination and performance of the system.   Having a goal with a timeline to assess and strengthen the governance of Caltrain to be able to better achieve the service vision could be a reasonable provision. 

Having goals to assess and strengthen the governance of regional transit – including Caltrain, BART, and an emerging network of regional bus lines – could be even better.  The staff recommendation that Council approved recommended that “with multiple megaprojects active in the Bay Area and the need to integrate multiple rail services into an integrated network, the call for agencies to convene a structured dialogue should be expanded. The structured dialogue should include the regional and state agencies necessary to address region-wide rail governance and mega-project implementation issues.” 

A strong and healthy way of interpreting this section would be to include a provision for a regional funding measure creating a timeline and process to assess and improve governance for regional rail and regional transit. 

However, this provision could also be pursued destructively.   The stakes for internecine rivalry are escalating, now there are options to provide funding for Caltrain either through a dedicated sales tax, or through inclusion as part of a very large Regional Measure. The sales tax authorizing legislation requires consent of seven boards to pass.  We’ve heard board members from Santa Clara County describe goals of contributing less funding to Caltrain, and simultaneously getting additional board seats. This dubious demand (more control for less contribution) has been one of the demands holding up work on a 3-county measure as a back-up plan if a regional measure is stalled.

A regional measure creates even more negotiating leverage. Now that a regional measure is in the works, the memo proposes to use the larger amounts of funding as leverage to force a particular flavor of governance reform that could reduce instead of improve stability of Caltrain for riders.

At the last board meeting, members agreed to start discussing the governance issues at a special session, most likely in November.  Even as the board is starting to talk outloud for the first time about these sensitive topics that have not been surfaced before, the timeline for a regional measure could be used to force rapid, ill-considered change based on an immediate threat.  

Proponents of a regional measure are seeking to launch legislation in January. Instead of a thoughtful discussion to build agreement on changes to achieve goals, the immediate threat of excluding billions in funding could be used to demand governance changes that would make the current instability worse, enshrining into law the destructive practice of elevating the separate goals of JPA members above the common goals, and adding a new destructive practice to be able to easily fire the CEO if one or another local goal is not met.  Imagine a Caltrain with all of the periodic budget crises, and add to that a new tradition of rapidly rotating CEOs. 

Governance reform for good goals: growth, integration, stability, reliability

Last week, the San Jose City Council voted to recommend that Caltrain strengthen it’s good Business Plan Service Vision to more strongly pursue growth, regional coordination, and equity.  We hope that city staff recommends and Council approves a resolution based on the good intent in the Mayor’s memo to pursue governance reform to better achieve these goals in a way that will provide more stable and reliable infrastructure for riders and for the city.