Caltrain board makes progress on governance; pursuit of funding unblocked for now

At a board workshop in Half Moon Bay, the Caltrain board made some good progress in starting to grapple with thorny topics of how the service will be governed and managed to meet the more challenging needs outlined by a service vision that would increase ridership by 3-4x by 2040.

The workshop built on the report for the Caltrain board by Howard Permut which concluded that “until now, Caltrain has been performing in the top tier of similar organizations, with double the passenger miles per employee compared to peers, but given the board decisions in the business plan, “the status quo is no longer viable…. Caltrain has already embarked upon a path that requires significant organizational change.”

On Thursday the 21st, Board members agreed on a process to take on the governance topic, including taking up some high-profile items first.

Instead of jumping in and expressing a preference for one of several “straw man” options, the board wanted to see a process more like the business plan process, where the board gets to methodically walk through the benefits and costs of various options in order to be able to make an informed decision.

Also, instead of delegating the process of assessing the governance options to the three general managers of the partner agencies, as was recommended by the report that Caltrain commissioned for the business plan, the Board decided that it wanted to have a board subcommittee involved, coordinating with senior staff discussions; and possibly have other stakeholders such as experts and business community members involved. A more detailed proposed process will be brought back to the board for their review and approval in January.

Importantly, the board representatives from San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties agreed to stop blocking pursuit of funding for Caltrain to achieve the service vision, given the level of progress at setting up a process to review governance.  Representing San Francisco, Board Member Cheryl Brinkman said “San Francisco will not hold up funding knowing that governance is going forward, we are not waiting for a full resolution..

Santa Clara County Supervisor and VTA board member Cindy Chavez didn’t go so far as agreeing to refrain from blocking funding, wanting to see how much progress would be made by Spring. She also agreed to not pre-emptively oppose Caltrain funding in a regional ballot measure or a standalone Caltrain-specific measure. (Not coincidentally, the Spring will bring important legislative deadlines for a potential regional transportation ballot measure). 

Also importantly, the board gave guidance that Caltrain should participate actively in discussions heating up relating to regional governance, such as regarding to the potential to create a regional construction authority, or how to administer regional fare integration – even as the board considers how to the current three-county Caltrain organization should be governed and managed.

A decision to bring on separate legal services to advise the Caltrain board on its options regarding governance and its relationship with SamTrans, which currently manages Caltrain. The board agreed to have the item taken up at the upcoming December board meeting. There was a kerfuffle over the summer when Board Member Walton and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors demanded that the attorney issue be addressed first, before the board decided on its Business Plan goals in October; but that the topic was deferred to the November board workshop instead to be discussed among a variety of other organizational issues.

This progress was made despite – or perhaps because of – a dramatic segment of the meeting where Grace Crunican, recently retired General Manager of BART, read aloud anonymized quotes from her interviews with board members, senior staff and other key stakeholders laying bare their thoughts and feelings about the partner agencies, with colorful expressions of competition and distrust.  Your blogger transcribed the quotes live on Twitter, with a thread starting here.

One quote expressed a reluctance to air the board’s dirty laundry in public – but the alternative for years has been behind-the-scenes rivalry contributing to budget brinkmanship – and now funding brinkmanship – that puts transit riders and drivers sitting in traffic at risk.

The items that were mentioned most frequently from the interviews were about money and power.  Santa Clara County has the largest number riders – should it have more board seats? San Mateo County advanced funding in the 1990s to buy the right of way from the State, do other partners still own money? There are valuable parcels of land near stations San Francisco and San Jose that Caltrain owns; partners want more say in the real state deals.  Very few of the comments – only one that your blogger observed – were about the meeting the shared goals and challenges of running Caltrain service and growing ridership.

Nevertheless (or maybe because of the public embarrassment to hear the internal competition revealed outloud), board members subsequently came to some reasonable agreements in the breakout session segment focusing on the governance process.

At the beginning of the meeting, Grace Crunican apologized for the lack of transit access to the retreat venue, at the Mavericks Resort in Half Moon Bay, about 6 miles up Highway 1 from downtown Half Moon Bay, but gave an explanation that the remote location could help board members get away from angst of the governance discussion.

We appreciate the desire for perspective but also think it sends a strange message when transit board members gather in a place that can’t be easily reached by public transportation. (Your blogger carpooled).