What speed for Caltrain governance?

One of the themes in the conversation about Caltrain governance by the most assertive proponents of change is that the process has been moving too slowly.  Proponents have been urging change for several years, and change is not yet happening.  Therefore, risky tactics are warranted to get change moving, because progress will not happen otherwise.

This argument has merit if one believes that that decisions about governance have little relationship to the changing goals of Caltrain service.

Over the last few years, Caltrain has been engaged in creating a “business plan” for the service once it is electrified. 

The work started in 2017, following a suspenseful few months in early 2017 when the Trump Administration unexpectedly held up but ultimately approved federal funding for electrification.  The scope of work for the business plan was set in late 2017, with analysis, community feedback, and board direction moving forward in 2018 and 2019.

While SB797, the bill authorizing a ballot measure for dedicated funding for Caltrain, was approved in 2017, Caltrain refrained from putting a measure on the ballot in 2018, wanting to first do the business plan that would tell voters what the money would be spent to achieve. 

For well over a century, Caltrain had been considered and run as a “commuter rail” service with a primary goal to transport white collar commuters at peak periods. The conclusions of the business plan would set Caltrain service on a path toward transformative change. 

The Business Plan analysis concluded that there was pent-up demand to increase ridership by 3-4 times by providing more frequent, all-day, all-week service. Analysis also found that the ridership, which is whiter and wealthier than the community, could be diversified and increased with strategies to improve affordability and transit connections with local and regional services.

As part of the Business Plan, Caltrain brought in Howard Permut, an expert consultant who had run MetroNorth for many years, to assess the organizational structure and governance of the service. Published in July 2019, the Permut report 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.” 

The report provided rich detail on internal organization, on sorts of jobs and departments that would be  needed to manage a rail service with higher ridership, a more complex schedule, and major construction projects.  

The Permut report also outlined the higher level management and governance issues, laying out several logical options including 

  • the status quo
  • improvements to the Joint Powers Board oversight and accountability
  • hiring standalone management separate from SamTrans
  • creating a special district (like BART) with a standalone board and separate management.

But the Permut report stopped short of making recommendations on these high-level choices – and refrained from providing a framework helping the board think through those important decisions.

The Caltrain board approved the ambitious business plan service vision in October, 2019.  As its next step, the Caltrain board held a workshop on governance in Half Moon Bay on November 21. At that meeting, the board agreed on a process to take on the governance topic.

But 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, costs, and requirements of various options in order to be able to make an informed decision.

Also at that meeting, the board agreed to advance the 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. There had been 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 together amidst a set of related organizational and governance issues.

The board discussed hiring the special legal counsel at its next meeting in December, and agreed to appoint an ad hoc subcommittee to discuss the governance issues and bring recommendations to the board, with board members Chavez, Walton, and Pine. 

The Caltrain board announced the hiring of the special counsel law firm at the March meeting.   With the Covid pandemic in the background, the subcommittee met and the law firm researched the legal agreements for the creation, management, property agreements, and dissolution for the Joint Powers Authority. 

The first substantive report from the legal counsel and the ad hoc subcommittee came before the Caltrain board in July, 2020.

So, when the proponents of rapid change asserted that there had been demand for change for two years without any action, what do they mean?  

Since electrification was funded, Caltrain has been moving in a step by step manner to plan for an electrified future, with governance planning as part of these methodical steps.  There was a reasonable case to be made – as we made last summer – that the Permut report should have created a stronger decision framework for the options it laid out.  And perhaps the governance ad hoc subcommittee, which had legal council in March, should have brought substantive interim discussions to the board between April and July, even as the agency and everyone else was wrestling with Covid. 

But these are quibbles. The choices of how to organize Caltrain service are big decisions.  And some of the most important aspects of the business plan’s strategies – improving coordination with regional service – can’t be achieved by Caltrain alone. 

As Howard Permut said, the status quo is not an option. We see Caltrain taking a reasonable step by step approach toward figuring out how it should be managed and governed in the future. We hope our regional leaders continue to move thoughtfully toward how Caltrain service can be managed and governed in a way that enables a future that is very different than the past.