Caltrain partners prepare for ⅛ cent tax in 2020, Regional Transit Measure seen to be at risk

At last week’s SamTrans board meeting and Caltrain Board meeting, General Manager Jim Hartnett reported that Caltrain and its partners are putting together the tight timeline that would be needed to authorize a ⅛ percent sales tax to provide stable funding and service increases for Caltrain. 

Over the last year, a Caltrain-specific tax had been seen as a backup plan if a large regional transportation funding measure does not go forward on the 2020 ballot.  At the SamTrans board meeting in the legislative update (2:45 in the linked video), Matt Robinson, the Sacramento lobbyist for SamTrans, presented the prospect of passage of SB278, the bill led by Senator Beall to authorize the transportation “megameasure” as “not an easy task.” 

The lobbyist compared the situation of SB278 to the experience in the previous legislative year with AB1487 (Chiu), a bill that authorized funding for affordable housing along with policies and institutional changes to manage the funding. AB1487 passed narrowly by a single vote, and it was a “not an easy vote”, as reported by the lobbyist. SB278 faces a tougher challenge, since it requires a two-thirds majority as an “urgency bill” that would go into effect the same yet it passes in order to get on the ballot in 2020.    

One of the challenges is with Democratic legislators in southern California facing the “Josh Newman effect“, referring to the Orange County senator in a swing district who was recalled in a campaign focusing on his vote for the SB1 gas tax. Because of the Southern California concerns, the Bay Area delegation would need to show unanimous support for the bill to have a chance of passing the legislature, said the lobbyist.


If you look up the bill, you will see that the substance does not yet look like a large regional transportation tax; the bill passed out of the state senate at the end of January as a “spot bill”, meaning it has placeholder text; more details are expected to be available before Assembly hearings that would happen in April.

SB278 is being proposed as 1 cent sales tax, a funding mechanism which is getting pushback from equity groups as well as local government officials who are concerned about competition with sales taxes funding local needs.

Should a Caltrain tax support better service, or rebates for Caltrain’s partners?

One of the issues being debated, according to Hartnett’s presentation at the Caltrain board meeting, is whether the funding should be focused on toward improving Caltrain service, maintenance, and capacity, or whether a large share should go to Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco agencies to relieve them of their obligation to pay for Caltrain.

Drawing inferences from recent presentations about Caltrain’s business plan (see slides in the most recent board packet), the new value could include more frequent all-day service starting immediately, more frequent, better-connected peak service before the end of the decade, and fewer cars clogging highways, and equity programs to increase the economic diversity of Caltrain riders. 

More information about a funding roadmap for Caltrain service improvements, and ideas about an expenditure plan for a Caltrain-specific ballot measure, is expected to be presented at board meetings in March (and committee meetings in February).