Peskin, Walton seek to solve regional rail governance by Spring

As the San Francisco County Transportation Authority considered a potential regional transportation funding measure this week, Board Chair Aaron Peskin and Board Member Shamann Walton, who also serves on the Caltrain board re-asserted demands that Caltrain’s management be separated from SamTrans, and that Caltrain governance be “regionalized” as a condition for any support of a regional transportation funding measure.

Peskin and Walton are right that Caltrain – and regional governance – need major upgrades in order to achieve the goals of the Caltrain business plan and the region’s goals for a large transit funding measure.  And, a bill for a regional funding measure to go on the ballot by 2020 would need to pass the legislature by Spring. Because the authorizing legislation for a Caltrain-specific tax requires agreement by 7 boards, that process would need to start in January. 

Changes for Caltrain, regional rail, and regional transit are needed. But the changes are likely to require more consideration than the deadlines this Winter and Spring. Here are ideas about what will need to be considered, and proposed solutions to provide more certainty about needed change.

The organizational assessment that was commissioned for the Caltrain business plan concluded that Caltrain’s current organization would not scale to achieve the goals set by the Caltrain business plan service vision, to grow capacity to meet pent-up demand to serve 3-4x the number of riders today. 

To achieve these goals, Caltrain would, among other things, need to be able to continue to make continual, major construction improvements over many years, while running more frequent service with a schedule with less margin for error. To kick off a process to consider the organizational and governance needs, Caltrain is holding a board workshop on November 21 starting at 9am, likely in Half Moon Bay (specific location not yet announced, details will be here.)

One of Walton’s requests is to remove SamTrans as the managing agency for Caltrain. But replace SamTrans with what, and for what reasons? To address the question would require evaluating how SamTrans management wouldn’t sufficiently serve the goals going forward; what would be needed instead; and how alternatives would better achieve the goals.  Just “not-SamTrans” is not yet a solution, and the problems to solve haven’t been identified. 

Also, one of Walton’s requests is for a different attorney representing Caltrain and SamTrans; Walton attempted to bring this request to the Caltrain board a few months ago. This is a reasonable change; but it’s one of any number of organizational changes that are likely needed; it makes sense to review the organization for a broader set of changes, rather than as a first and separate step swap out the attorney. 

Since Caltrain is already starting the process to consider organization and governance changes, one way to address the concerns is for the three counties to agree to a specific framework and timetable to evaluate the various restructuring options for Caltrain, while pursuing a joint funding strategy.

Change is needed, but the changes are likely to require more time than the legislative deadline this Spring. All the more so, changes that not only upgrade Caltrain, but regionalize it, in Walton’s words.

Some of the challenges involved in maturing Caltrain service to meet the goals in the business plan can’t be solved at the scale of Caltrain’s three counties. 

  • To weave Caltrain service into a regionally integrated transit network, means having coordinated fares, schedules and wayfinding. This will require a much higher level of regional organization than the region has today, and coordination beyond the boundaries of Caltrain’s three counties to connections to BART, AC Transit, Capitol Corridor, ACE and more.
  • To plan the connections between Caltrain and other parts of the regional and megaregional network, including the Downtown Extension, 2nd SF-East Bay Rail Crossing,  Dumbarton Crossing, Diridon hub station, it would be valuable to have these interconnections planned as a network, enabling fast and seamless trips for riders and easy hub connections, though parts of the system will be run by different operators
  • To deliver the roadmap of major capital improvements for Caltrain and other services, the region would benefit from a regional megaproject delivery organization. Today, many agencies each do one-off big construction projects, with poor results; projects that are late and over budget; and without the ability to develop experience at managing megaprojects more effectively.

Seamless Bay Area has been advocating for a regional funding measure to come with state law provisions requiring the region to identify an organization to serve the Network Manager role which is so badly missing today.

The goal of a seamless system is shared by the FASTER Bay Area business coalition organized by Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SPUR, and by the Voices for Public Transportation community coalition. At yesterday’s public event on a regional measure hosted by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, representatives from the FASTER group said that their proposal for a regional measure would require a regional network manager that would coordinate transit, mentioning the Seamless proposal.

So solutions to the concerns raised by Supervisors Peskin and Walton are on the table. 

The question is timing.  Instead of picking a solution up front, the Seamless proposal calls for a state-authorized commission that would analyze all the parts of the Bay Area’s transit system and recommend which entity should serve as a network manager, and what changes needed, including changes to state laws, capabilities of existing agencies, and organizational boundaries, to bring this about. The commission would include technical experts, citizen representatives including riders, transit and transportation agency staff, local elected officials, and state representatives who can efficiently turn the recommendations of the commission into legislation.  These steps would increase the likelihood that the funding would result in a seamlessly integrated, high-performing system. In the Seamless proposal, the Commission would be given a year to fulfill its mission, with an optional one-year extension.

Just with the Downtown Extension project the SFCTA has recently concluded a yearlong governance study that has made recommendations that have just now been published and yet to be approved or implemented.

The headline-grabbing comments by Supervisor’s Peskin and Walton serve to call attention to the need to change and mature Caltrain and the region’s rail and transit system. 

Hopefully, in practice, Peskin and Walton would support a robust and expert process to propose and make needed change for Caltrain and regional rail, rather than to try and fix the region’s problems with transit system organization by Spring.