Caltrain: Good governance or bad governance?

After a fierce debate at its July board meeting, a majority of the Caltrain board agreed that the agency needs to continue work to upgrade its governance to address its goals, with a resolution at its August meeting outlining goals and a timeline. 

A minority of the Caltrain board (Stone and Pine) argued that governance reform would not be needed for 10-20 years. Because of the challenges of the pandemic and recession, they made the case that progress on governance should halt. But this point of view did not succeed. The majority of the board wanted progress on governance change.

But for another minority of the board (Chavez and Walton), the pace was too slow. They wanted to see SamTrans immediately decide to divest from Caltrain by the end of July.

The proponents of immediate governance reform fought back outside of the Caltrain board meeting, with Supervisor Peskin quietly refraining from introducing the Caltrain ballot measure at the Tuesday board of Supervisors, causing it to be left for dead.   With the Board of Supervisors faced with an outcry from voters and scathing press coverage, Supervisor Haney picked up the ball and said he would work to bring the ballot measure back from the dead, which will require a supermajority vote.

Proponents of immediate governance reform kicked into high gear, seeking to change the ballot measure resolutions so that they would condition Caltrain funding on governance reform. The Chronicle over the weekend reported on a proposal to take the funding for the Caltrain tax, and give it back to the 3 counties who would decide every year whether (whether, not a typo) to use it on Caltrain. If the parties couldn’t agree on governance reform after a number of years, the money could be used for other purposes within the county.

This “governance” proposal would replicate the instability that has bedeviled Caltrain riders for the last 25 years. Every year, the 3 county partners decide whether to pay for Caltrain service and maintenance.  Your blogger has given many talks about Caltrain governance and funding over time. The line in the talk that “every year, the 3 county partners decide ‘whether’ they are going to pay to run Caltrain.” typically gets a horrified laugh.  That this is obviously bad governance is clear to groups of students and neighborhood associations.

Caltrain’s annual budget decisions regularly have gotten used as leverage by its county partners for one or another local issue, with the consequences being the potential for fare increases, service cuts, or maintenance cuts for Caltrain riders.  The new proposal would replicate the features of the current system that are bad for riders and the communities that depend on well-functioning transit.  

Plus, as many people pointed out, the provisions to decide whether to use money for Caltrain contradicts the plain meaning of SB797, the law that authorizes the tax.  While anti-tax advocates in California routinely litigate governments to stop ballot measures from going into effect – most recently in the Bay Area for Regional Measure 3 and Santa Clara County’s Measure B – these suits based on anti-tax beliefs and subtle interpretations of the law are rarely successful.  Your blogger is no lawyer, but it seems that a provision that clearly contradicts the plain meaning of a very short law would be challenged and that challenge would have a higher likelihood of success. 

And this is not the first time a proposal for “Caltrain governance” reform was floated which could replicate the same instability that Caltrain riders and communities have come to know and dread. Last summer, Mayor Liccardo wrote a memo for San Jose City Council, at an agenda item giving comments on Caltrain’s business plan, calling for governance reform that would make Caltrain’s CEO and management accountable to “each of the three partner agencies.”  EACH of the three partner agencies.  At the time, I wrote: “The memo’s language doesn’t say, make Caltrain’s management accountable to the goals of the shared service vision.  That would be good. The language says, ‘to each of the partner agencies.’”  

That sort of “accountability” would similarly replicate the instability of Caltrain’s current unstable system, because it would allow any county, based on a local issue, to fire (or threaten to fire) the CEO.  

This conclusion about the “blue memo” required some close reading, and could conceivably have resulted from speedy drafting – the memo was put forward minutes before the meeting.

Today, it seems more clear that these proposals, which both replicate the instability of the current Caltrain governance, do not do so accidentally.  Providing dedicated funding for Caltrain would tend to reduce the instability. These provisions attempt to restore the instability, bringing back the ability of county partners to use high-stakes negotiations on an annual basis to pursue local goals. 

This is governance reform to be sure, but it is bad governance. It replicates the original sin of Bay Area governance, which is to seek to manage a regional systems in a way that maximizes local control. This is why the Bay Area is infamous for regional governance that is not up to the region’s challenges.

Another attribute of bad governance we’re seeing now is the phenomenon where a few members of the Caltrain board, with stronger power bases in their home County, seek to undermine the majority decision of the board to commit to deliberate governance change with a resolution in August, with actions outside the board to promote more rapid change with proposals that represent bad governance and are of dubious legality.

For that matter, another attribute of bad governance we’re seeing is this mechanism requiring the uniform and unanimous approval of 7 boards to get a tax on the ballot. If any one board doesn’t support, the process dies. And if one passes something different from the rest, they all need to change or the process falls apart. 

Friends of Caltrain wants to see governance reform that increases stability and reliability for riders and the communities that Caltrain depends on. We agree with SPUR’s letter to the Caltrain board – we want to see governance reform that integrates Caltrain into a well-coordinated transit system with integrated fares and schedules, and stronger capability to manage big capital projects. 

We support the Caltrain board’s path to continue a path of governance reform with a date, backed up by the stated goals of the state’s legislative delegation to implement change. 

The region depends on a stable and well-integrated transit system. We need good governance, not bad governance.