Caltrain board holds high-stakes debate on governance – agreement needed to advance ballot measure

At last Thursday’s Caltrain board meeting, members held a vigorous and high-stakes debate about the opportunity to put a measure on the ballot to provide stable funding for Caltrain, and to relieve hard-hit county transit agency operating budgets from the need to pay annual operating and maintenance funding toward Caltrain.

San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties have been wanting to see progress on governance prior to enabling Caltrain to move ahead with the ballot measure, while San Mateo County has been proposing slower and more limited change.

By the end of the meeting, board members had agreed that the Caltrain board’s governance subcommittee would work on a resolution to bring to the Caltrain board in August on the topics of CEO accountability and a process for ongoing discussion of the question of the managing agency.  

We hope that the parties make enough progress to give comfort to the board members in San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties who were pushing the hardest for change, so they support the local agency board votes needed to allow the ballot measure to go forward; and for the Caltrain board to advance the funding measure. Without that funding, Caltrain’s ability to keep running is at risk. 

As director Heminger observed, the Caltrain board needs a path forward within 30 days “or we might be arguing over the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The key subjects of debate were the accountability of the Caltrain CEO to the Caltrain board, and the pace of considering alternatives to the current structure where SamTrans serves as the managing agency for Caltrain. 

CEO accountability to Caltrain board. The board’s governance subcommittee reported that they were refining a proposal for how to strengthen the CEO’s accountability to the Caltrain board. In addition to feedback on performance reviews, San Francisco and Santa Clara partners want the ability to fire the CEO for poor performance. With SamTrans as the managing agency, the CEO of Caltrain is also simultaneously in charge of SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. But, if a Caltrain executive had a vote of no confidence by the Caltrain Joint Powers board, based on criteria set by that board about achieving the common goals for Caltrain, it seems wrong to retain an executive who was evaluated to be failing at one of their three jobs.

Managing agency. San Francisco board member Walton and Santa Clara County board member Chavez also want to see Caltrain being spun off as its own agency separate from SamTrans.  The research conducted by the law firm hired by the Caltrain board to work on governance found that as part of an agreement to address an earlier financial crisis in 2008, SamTrans was granted the right to be the managing agency as long as it wished, in exchange for partial repayment for its purchase of the right of way back in the 90s. 

At a moment when transit agencies around the region including San Francisco’s Muni prepare for sharply reduced levels of service with budgets crippled by recession, and the Bay Area’s Transit Recovery Task Force prepares to contemplate restructuring to improve the financial sustainability of the transit system, it seems crazy to bring forward a proposal that would add millions in additional senior management salaries to run separate agencies.

But, to achieve the 3-4x ridership growth and transformation envisioned in the Caltrain business plan service vision, it may well be beneficial to have Caltrain’s regional transit service be managed separately from the SamTrans local service.  Logical options could include a standalone agency (especially if there is a regional entity empowered to ensure coordinated service across multiple transit agencies), or combining Caltrain with other regional rail services. 

The San Mateo County representatives on the Caltrain board acknowledged that change might be needed eventually – but possibly not until 10-20 years in the future. This slow pace seems at odds with the Caltrain board’s adopted policies for growth; the agency’s current advocacy for the region to support PlanBayArea options to accommodate Caltrain growth in the first half of the region’s long term plan, and with the policy proposals coming before the board next month to support equity, connectivity, and ridership growth via regionally coordinated fares and schedules 

Regional governance reform While Caltrain board members wrestled with questions of CEO accountability and the managing agency, there was much less discussion of the regional governance challenges that pose barriers to Caltrain’s goals. 

In its letter to the Caltrain board, regional think tank SPUR called out a range of regional challenges:  poorly coordinated schedules and fares leading to unreliable and less affordable service for customers; poorly coordinated and inefficient capital investments; and the dire fiscal condition of the entire Bay Area transit system due to ridership and funding declines due to the Covid pandemic.  SPUR recommended that the Caltrain board advance the ballot measure, while also evaluating options for governance reform that address the regional challenges, in the short term, in the context of the MTC Blue Ribbon Task Force for Transit Recovery. 

The regional issues were mentioned briefly by board members Bruins, Davis and Heminger – we hope that they will be acknowledged in the Caltrain board resolution, because solutions will needed to advance Caltrain’s goals for ridership, equity and connectivity.