Caltrain board leans toward 3-county governance compromise

At Friday’s governance workshop, the board leaned heavily toward compromise options that increased the level of accountability of the agency’s management and staff to the Caltrain board, and will leave the door open for participation in discussions about better regional coordination.

The “Option 3” that would have completely separated Caltrain from SamTrans, using tens of millions of dollars to replicate back-end IT and financial services, was not completely eliminated but was left on life support at the end of the meeting.

At the next governance workshop in September (date not finalized), staff will bring back variants on Option 1 and Option 2, which would have 1-8 members of the senior management team reporting directly to the Caltrain board, and would have explicit contractual agreements for the services that SamTrans provides Caltrain.

The reasoning from board members in leading away from Option 3 was the high cost; the risks of losing focus on the challenges of recovery from the impacts of Covid recovery and completing electrification; and the distractions from important discussions about regional transit governance happening in the next year.

From San Francisco, Supervisor Shamann Walton, who had been the strongest public champion of Option 3 was absent.  The other two San Francisco representatives, Heminger and Zmuda both spoke against Option 3. Heminger in particular wanted to maintain attention and capability for Caltrain to participate in discussions about regional options. But Board Member Heminger did not want to exclude Option 3 while Walton was not present in the virtual room. 

From Santa Clara County, Chair Davis and Board Member Hendricks spoke up against the costs and risks of #3, and supported variants of Option 2.   Chavez had been a supporter of spinning off Caltrain as an agency fully separate from SamTrans, but was open to other options that provided more direct accountability to the Caltrain board with more incremental change than Option 3.

The San Mateo County representatives supported variants on Options #1 and #2, and opposed Option #3. Board Member Stone noted that significant changes had already happened to make Caltrain more accountable to its board, including creating a separate executive director job (Caltrain’s chief executive used to be a shared job with SamTrans), as well as separate attorney and auditing firms.  Board Member Gee was particularly interested in being able to focus on the regional discussions.   All board members agreed that repaying money owed to SamTrans was important; SMC board members noted a variety of areas where negotiations will be needed. 

Notably, the three major business organizations in the corridor, representing Caltrain’s major employer institutional customers, all opposed using large amounts of Measure RR funds on the administrative expenses to set up Caltrain as a separate organization, instead of using funding to support customer-facing services and infrastructure. Bay Area Council and Silicon Valley Leadership wrote letters, while SAMCEDA, the San Mateo County business group, spoke in favor of the letters from the other two organizations.  

The inclination of a substantial board majority was clear. However, the inclination of a majority of the Caltrain board was also clear at a Caltrain board meeting discussing the process of getting Measure RR on the ballot, and board members who were absent (Walton) or not on the board (San Francisco Supervisor Peskin, San Jose Mayor Liccardo) actively pursued other alternatives through Caltrain’s member agencies. Times are different now that Measure RR has passed; Caltrain and Bay Area transit face significant challenges recovering from Covid; and the region has made significant progress on regional coordination through the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. Time will tell whether the conversation will change in between board workshops.

The Caltrain board at Friday’s meeting also showed a strong interest in the upcoming workshop in October 22 that will focus on participating in regional discussions and decisions around fare integration; network management to coordinate transit; and potential governance changes to address the region’s challenges with capital project delivery, where large projects tend to be costly and late. 

The video of the meeting is here, and livetweets of the meeting are linked below.