Caltrain governance meeting implodes; SamTrans considers lawsuit; other board members boycott

On Friday morning, the Caltrain board meeting that was intended to discuss regional options for Caltrain governance imploded. Disputes among the three counties caused the meeting to collapse.

Earlier in the week, the SamTrans board called a special meeting on the topic of potential litigation, and sent a letter to the Caltrain partner agencies and MTC seeking repayment for money SamTrans has paid over the decades.  In response, three members boycotted the meeting from the other counties (San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Walton, and Santa Clara County reps Glenn Hendricks, VTA board chair, and Cindy Chavez, Santa Clara County Supervisor). 

Chair Davis (San Jose City Council member on the VTA board) attended only to announce that the meeting would be cut short after public comment because she and other VTA representatives had been told by their attorney that they could not speak at the meeting because their comments could become part of a lawsuit

Numerous public comments (including from this blogger) expressed regret and concern that the Caltrain board was not governing, and eagerness for the Caltrain board to address the regional governance options that could help provide better coordinated transit service and more cost-effective capital projects.

What is going on?

The Caltrain board has set itself a deadline to make decisions about governance issues among the 3 partner counties by the end of the year, and has created a nonpublic ad hoc committee that meets regularly to set the stage for public deliberations (Davis, Walton, Chavez, Pine (San Mateo County Supervisor, SamTrans board).

The main topic at issue for this year was the managing agency. SamTrans has served as the managing agency for Caltrain since the agency purchased the right of way from the state in the 90s. The debate has been about how to make the managing agency more accountable to the Caltrain board, and whether to replace SamTrans as the managing agency, and if so with what alternative.

Those private discussions in the governance ad hoc committee must have been going very badly for the SamTrans board to meet to consider litigation and send a letter to partner agencies seeking reimbursement.  The public has no idea what demands representatives from San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties may have been making that prompted SamTrans to consider litigation.

Are there paths out of the deadlock?

In public comment, Jason Baker, who leads transportation and housing for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, implored the board to come together, as they did in the runup to Measure RR, to overcome their disputes. 

But, at Friday’s meeting, the San Mateo County representatives voted against adding the topic of SamTrans repayment to an upcoming board agenda.  And the Santa Clara County VTA reps are saying that they could not engage in the board meeting because of the potential litigation, as described in a letter to the Caltrain board.

The next official milestone in the Caltrain board’s governance process is a workshop scheduled for Friday, August 20, 2021, 1:00pm – 4:30pm, slated to discuss the issues among the 3 counties.

But it’s not clear if there is a path forward for a governance discussion led by the Caltrain board, or if the negotiations about how Caltrain will be managed have now become a legal dispute in the hands of lawyers of the Joint Powers Authority member agencies at odds with each other.

Can the Caltrain board meet on Thursday? Can it govern Caltrain?

Matters could come to a head quickly. The Caltrain board has a regular meeting scheduled for Thursday.   Chair Davis said that VTA board members refrained from participating because of advice by their lawyers due to the potential litigation (see the letter sent to Caltrain).  Will the Santa Clara County board representatives also boycott Thursday’s board meeting? 

If members continue to boycott the next meeting, this seems like a regional crisis if the board of a major component of the regional public transportation system is not governing. Or, perhaps by Thursday the VTA reps will get permission from their lawyer to participate in the regular board meeting. 

But the impasse elevates a fundamental problem in Caltrain’s board.  Caltrain board members are all appointed by the transit agencies, counties and cities on the corridor (see below).  As several members of the public noted in public comment at Friday’s board meeting, there is a tension where board members may perceive their job to be more accountable to the local entity that appointed them than to the regional service they lead on Caltrain board.   “Local control” has limits when it comes to managing a regional transit service.

This is the structural flaw that came up in the rollercoaster runup to Measure RR, where the partners in the Caltrain Joint Powers Authority were engaged in high stakes negotiations against the other partners, and were hours away from failing to get the measure on the ballot, leaving Caltrain at risk of shutdown.

Meanwhile this year, there are multiple regional initiatives underway addressing a variety of topics , including a regional fare study, the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force which is moving forward with a study of network management options to achieve a better coordinated regional system, and an MTC-led regional rail study which is coming forward this year after a Covid pause. 

By skipping Friday’s meeting, the Caltrain board gave up opportunities to give guidance to staff to represent the agency’s goals and interests, with direction more specific than the general guidance of the approved Caltrain business plan, which at a high level does support better coordination with local and regional transit.

The region depends on a functioning rail service on the Caltrain line that is well-integrated with local and regional transit. If the Caltrain board is too internally conflicted to govern, that makes regional rail governance options that are less dependent on local leaders more important and more urgent.