Caltrain board governance workshop today – can Caltrain’s governance pay its bills?

Today, Friday May 14 at 1pm, the Caltrain board is holding its second of five workshops on governance this year.  Today’s workshop will focus on what Caltrain is calling “self-directed options” – options among the three Caltrain counties.

As the Caltrain board is discussing its governance options, Caltrain is running into a familiar snag – having trouble agreeing on a budget to meet basic needs like keeping trains in working order and replacing old unsafe bridges.

Today, the Caltrain board is discussing the criteria for governance options. Being able to agree on a budget to meet the basic needs of reliable service ought to be one of the fundamental objectives.

Read on for background and instructions for how to watch, listen and comment.

While the headline is “governance”, a word that is often used to mean board structure and functions,  the options outlined for discussion focusing on level of control and independence of the managing agency.  

Since the formation of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority in the 90s, the executive running the rail service had a split job, also running SamTrans and the San Mateo County TA (transportation funding authority).  Recently, to meet Caltrain board goals for responsive management, Caltrain appointed a separate acting ED, as well as separate attorney and auditing functions.  Now, the board is considering how much further to go in this direction, with giving the board more authority to hire the ED and senior staff, or to hire a full duplicate set of management staff instead of sharing with SamTrans.

It is not clear how or whether measures, which address the desire of board members to have a higher level of control over the agency, do anything to address the basic governance issue of the Joint Powers Authority having trouble agreeing how to provide stable funding for its basic functions and shared goals.

In fact, the disparate interests of the partner agencies might best be met by an unstable structure where partners have the most leverage to engage in high-stakes negotiation against each other, with the interests of riders, institutional customers and communities standing by concerned about whether Caltrain will function – as we saw in the debate about getting Measure RR on the ballot.

This year’s budget dispute is murky, with open questions about how Measure RR should be used going forward to fund Caltrain’s annual operations, maintenance (state of good repair), and capital projects, and how partner contributions will be handled.  The historical “gentleman’s agreement” where all partners contribute, or none do and an element of the budget put at risk, is an unstable way to run an element of society’s basic infrastructure.

At the first board workshop in March, the Caltrain board agreed that their goal is to serve riders and ridership, and to position Caltrain to achieve the business plan service vision to greatly increase ridership by providing more frequent, all-day service that is well-connected to local and regional transit, serving a greater diversity of trips and riders. 

The current Joint Powers Authority where each party has different interests might not be the best way to govern, if these interests are sufficiently different, sufficiently often.   But that question is not clearly posed in the material for board consideration today. 

Next Meeting: Regional Options

At the first Caltrain board governance workshop this year, the Caltrain board also agreed to consider regional options in the mix – regional options will be the subject at the next meeting on June 25.  A recent Bay Area Council poll showed that the vast majority of voters surveyed favored combining BART and Caltrain, and a very large share of the Friends of Caltrain readership supports a variety of regional options to provide coordinated service.

The dates for the upcoming meetings are: 

  • Governance Workshop #3: Friday, June 25, 2021, 8:30am – 12:00pm
  • Governance Workshop #4: Friday, August 20, 2021, 1:00pm – 4:30pm
  • Governance Workshop #5: Friday, October 22, 2021, 1:00pm – 4:30pm.

The information to dial in to watch, listen, and comment on today’s meeting is:

Dial-in 1‐669‐900‐6833  Webinar ID: 921 2409 5015, Passcode: 638844