Caltrain and partners continue pursuing November ballot measure

On Wednesday, April 1, the SamTrans board is slated to be the first of 7 boards scheduled to consider approving a resolution that would put a measure on the November 2020 ballot to provide stable funding for Caltrain and contribute to a $1 billion capital program that would allow Caltrain to increase ridership another 20% or more by 2030, the equivalent of taking an additional 2 lanes of traffic off the freeway. 

Despite the uncertainty with the Covid-19 public health crisis, Caltrain and its partners are moving forward taking the steps to approve a resolution enabling the ballot measure.

Changing how Caltrain is funded

According to presentations by Caltrain staff, the agency agreement for the ballot measure would transform how Caltrain’s partners would contribute funding, stabilizing Caltrain’s budget, reducing risk for riders, and easing financial constraints for Caltrain’s partners. However, key elements of the agency agreements are not documented in the materials the boards are set to approve.

The proposed agreement among the agencies is that the ballot measure would provide funding to relieve member agencies from having to contribute annually to Caltrain’s operating and maintenance budget.  Caltrain’s operating revenues are currently funded by a mix of fares and annual payments from its three member agencies in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. The reliance on partner agency funding has caused repeating waves of instability, resulting in service cuts, and fare increases for riders when occasionally member agencies have been unable to pay their annual bills. 

In exchange for being relieved of the need to pay for Caltrain service with their scarce operating funding dollars, member agencies would be expected to contribute a higher amount toward the $1 billion capital program. The capital program includes funding for rail cars and passing tracks needed for more frequent service, level boarding allowing faster and more reliable service, and space to store and maintain the additional trains. These investments would provide greater capacity and support significant ridership increases. 

An overview of the goals of the ballot measure, including the new funding arrangement for Caltrain’s partners, was presented on Tuesday, March 24, at a meeting of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, the first of a series of meetings in the multi-step process to approve a ballot measure.

As presented by Seamus Murphy, Chief Communications Officer for Caltrain/Samtrans, (at 45:30 in the video). “Those funds from SB797 would be prioritized to support the operating and state of good repair needs of the system, and they can fully fund those needs for the expanded growth scenario.  Member agencies would not need to contribute any more to the operating and State of Good Repair budgets. We would have $300 million from SB797 left over to support the $1 Billion in capital investments. That means there’s about $700 million more, about $233 Million from agencies that would need to be covered to fully realize this service vision.” 

Murphy described agreement to shift Caltrain partner obligations from operating support to capital support as included in presentation being given to agency boards, on slide 17 below  But, these expectations to relieve member agencies of annual operating obligations, and to increase capital funding expectations is not stated explicitly in the resolution (page 64 in the pdf of the SamTrans board packet)   Caltrain staff explains that if the ballot measure passes, the member agencies would sign a Memorandum of Understanding regarding new expectations regarding contributions to the capitol program. But, there is no mention of this process in the staff report.

Update: At the SamTrans board meeting, Caltrain staff clarified that the wording of the resolution ensured that the funds would prioritize annual operating and maintenance funding, which would have the effect of eliminating the partner agency obligations. The change in expectations for partner contribution to capital funding is not documented.

Equity, connectivity and the ballot measure

There are two remaining elements of Caltrain’s business plan that are still being worked on regarding improving equitable access to Caltrain and improving connectivity via transit and active transportation. Caltrain’s equity and connectivity studies show that these issues are closely interrelated – transit fare and schedule coordination are powerful strategies to improve equitable access to Caltrain. This blog post covers the preliminary results of the equity and connectivity studies

Caltrain is expecting to come out with additional recommendations on equity and connectivity later in April. While the wording in the ballot measure resolution is terse, identifying equity measures “including” means-based fares, we hope that the Caltrain board approves stronger recommendations that will then become a goal of the ballot measure to fund.  We will keep you posted on the next steps of the study on equity and connectivity so you can let the Caltrain board know your thoughts about policies and funding.

A tight timeline in an uncertain time

While this seems far-fetched at the current moment, as the Bay Area is under a shelter-in-place order during the Covid-19 epidemic, and a world beyond this state of emergency seems far away.  And yet this crisis will pass, and there will still be a climate crisis and a need for better transit with stable funding, so Caltrain and its partners are keeping the option open for a ballot measure in the fall.

The one-eighth cent sales tax for Caltrain, using legislative authorization from SB797 passed in 2017, was a backup plan if a large regional funding measure was not going forward in 2020.  The regional measure had been facing steep headwinds in the state legislature. On March 17, as the Bay Area economy ground to a halt under a shelter-in-place order, the FASTER business-backed group which had been championing a regional measure announced that they were withdrawing support for a ballot measure in 2020. 

The resolution to advance a ballot measure needs to move on a very aggressive timeline in order to make it to the ballot.  At the March 5 board meeting, Caltrain announced a the timeline needed for review by the 7 boards that are required to approve the tax according to the process defined in SB797 (see the schedule below). By the August hard deadline, Caltrain would consider the public health situation and polling and decide whether to go ahead with the measure.

Getting understandings on record

We are concerned that absent a public, documented assertion of member agency intentions to contribute to the capital funding, a ballot measure might pass, providing Caltrain with money to run more frequent trains, but without partner support for the capital funding to buy those trains. We’re concerned that voters could vote for a ballot measure advertised as delivering more service that will take two freeway lanes worth of cars from highways, but what they get could substantially different.

The resolution has a tight time frame, and sending it back to the drawing board may cause the schedule to break. The important milestone seems to be the board decisions in August about whether to put the measure on the ballot, and regarding the expenditure plan for the measure.  We’d like to see the board be much more clear by then that they support the plan to use the funds mostly to run service and to rely more heavily on partners for the capital improvements needed to deliver the service. 

In chronological order, the sequence of meetings is:

4/1 – 2pm – SamTrans Board Action
4/7 – Changed to 5/5 – 9am – SMC BOS Action
4/23 – 9:30am – SCC BOS Legislative File
4/21 – 1pm SFMTA Board Action
5/5 – 1:30pm SCC BOS Action
5/13 to 5/21 – VTA Committees to
Recommend Action
5/27 – 3pm Caltrain Committee Action
6/2 – 2pm SFBOS referral to Committee
6/4 – 9am – Caltrain Board Action
6/4 – 5:30pm – VTA Board Action
6/9 – 10am – SFBOS Committee Action
6/21 – 2pm – SFBOS Action
8/7 – Caltrain Board Vote whether to place measure on Ballot
11/3 – Election Day