Caltrain board leans toward Caltrain tax backup plan while approving bold service vision

On Thursday, the Caltrain board approved a bold vision to provide more frequent service all day long and at peak, by adding more frequent service all day and at peak, as well as longer trains, supporting 3-4 times higher ridership. The only change made at the meeting was even stronger language, championed by Director Chavez, about the goal to support higher ridership; the proposed policy already had been strengthened beyond earlier more timid language to “not preclude” higher growth.

The package the board approved includes follow-up studies on connectivity and equity over the next several months, creating opportunities for stronger policies to pursue seamless connections and diversifying ridership.  The board also approved next steps toward deciding how to strengthen Caltrain’s organization and governance, to discuss a report that concludes that the status quo will not enable Caltrain to grow it service according to the vision.  A board workshop on November 21 will discuss the governance options in the report.

Funding the service vision – regional transit measure, with Caltrain tax as backup plan

Gaining up to a quarter million new riders will take major investments. At meeting, the board discussed the potential of a regional transit funding measure, which could raise up to $100Billion in funding for public transit and active transportation.  The board heard a presentation from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is advocating a sales tax to fund transportation as part of business coalition Faster Bay Area, and comments from the Voices for Public Transportation, a coalition of community, transit and labor groups, which supports a large regional transit funding measure with a less regressive mix of funding.  Board members including Chavez, Bruins, Gillett, and Stone expressed concern about a sales tax only approach.

Several board members wanted to see a ballot measure provide funding for improving service, in addition to new capital improvements. Reaching higher ridership for Caltrain and other services would require more frequent service, in addition to capital improvements such as longer trains and passing tracks. Even with a continued high share of revenue from ridership, Caltrain is likely to require more operating funding to deliver the service.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group presenters said they were considering how much funding to support for operations, and the Voices for Public Transportation comments strongly supported operating funding to improve service.

Caltrain tax backup option

In the discussion of funding, board members spoke in favor of pursuing a dedicated Caltrain tax as a backup measure, if a regional measure does not move ahead yet in 2020.   Polling has been favorable, but there are issues being debated including funding sources, how much funding for operations, and the timing of regional funding for transportation vs. housing, and a 2020 timeline isn’t guaranteed.

Director Chavez first brought up the idea of a Caltrain-specific tax as a backup plan, which is notable because she and other leaders from San Jose and San Francisco had been proposing to prevent a Caltrain-specific ballot measure unless Caltrain addressed their concerns about governance.  Carl Guardino, the head of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is promoting a regional tax and had backed the bill that allows a standalone Caltrain tax, also expressed support for a Caltrain tax as a backup plan.

The service improvements called out in the Business Plan would provide a strong foundation to ask voters for funds for Caltrain, if that path moves forward.  However, the mechanism for the Caltrain tax authorized by the legislature is also a sales tax (⅛ cent, vs. a 1 cent increase proposed for the Regional Measure). The upcoming equity and connectivity studies have the potential to provide recommendations of ways to improve the economic diversity of Caltrain riders, which could help to reduce voter concerns about another a sales tax;  earlier polling results showed voters were concerns about businesses paying their fair share.