Caltrain partner agencies propose defunding capital maintenance and upgrades

As Caltrain works on its budget for the coming year, partner agencies appear to be proposing to defund the budget for routine capital maintenance and upgrades of trains, bridges, and stations, and other capital projects. The capital budget debate could risk service reliability for riders, and has implications for Caltrain’s ongoing governance discussions.

In the planning for Measure RR, the 1/8 cent sales tax that passed this fall, Caltrain staff described expectations (slide 10 and following) that Measure RR would be used to fund service going forward, and take the need to fund Caltrain service off of the books of Caltrain’s partner agencies in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. But partner agencies would still be expected to contribute funds toward the Capital budget. Measure RR would generate funds for a modest amount of capital improvements, but not nearly enough to fund the substantial improvements envisioned by the Caltrain business plan to enable high-capacity service with a reliable, regular schedule, and additional regional connections.

Yesterday, at an emergency session of the SamTrans board, following the regular board meeting, the SamTrans board voted to offer a $5 million contribution toward the Caltrain capital budget, contingent on the other partner agencies contributing funding.

SamTrans board members expressed disappointment that partner agencies were proposing to withdraw contributions. Member Gee commented “In my experience, you never catch up when you put things off (capital projects)… it just gets more expensive and … will just add cost in the future.”

Meanwhile, at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors yesterday, Supervisor Walton, who serves on the Caltrain board, also questioned whether SFMTA should continue to invest in capital projects.

The debate about whether partners should contribute to Caltrain’s capital budget has implications for Caltrain’s ongoing governance discussions this year. At the last Caltrain board governance workshop, board members agreed that they wanted an option for Caltrain governance that would fulfill the goals of the Caltrain Business Plan Service Vision that the board had adopted in 2019 and 2020 for more frequent, all-day service, higher capacity supporting ridership growth, better connections to local and regional transit, and more equitable access to people across the income spectrum. Fulfilling this vision will require capital funding beyond Measure RR.

Board members from county partners in San Francisco and Santa Clara have expressed an interest in greater control over Caltrain. However, it seems contradictory to seek greater control while offering fewer resources to achieve the common goals.

If the goal of Caltrain’s governance is to pursue the objectives of Caltrain’s business plan, but the current Joint Powers Authority members are not working together to fund and deliver that plan, then an alternative solution is needed. In the coming year, Caltrain board will be considering a variety of governance options to achieve those goals.

Caltrain’s budget will be discussed at today’s board meeting, with the public session expected to start at 9:30am. The budget is agenda #10. The agenda is online here. To watch, listen, and make public comment, use this Zoom link or dial-in number: 1-669-900-6833 (Webinar ID: 914 1277 6292, Passcode: 909765

The VTA board will be discussing its contribution at its board meeting this evening starting at 5:30pm. The agenda including dial-in information is here.