Today: Caltrain board considers 3-county governance compromises

On Thursday, September 30, the Caltrain board is holding a milestone governance workshop where they seek to compromise on a 3-county governance structure that can steer the agency through the next few years, dealing with recovering ridership from the impacts of Covid, electrification and other major capital projects, and engaging in regional discussions about rail and transit governance.

If Caltrain successfully clears this hurdle, they will move on to regional governance topics at another workshop in October, about how to engage in regional discussions about governing a more closely coordinated regional rail and transit system. 

At this meeting, the board will consider some new options that are less costly than fully separating Caltrain from SamTrans as a separate agency with no shared services, which would cost $50M up front and over $9M per year.  At the last workshop, Board Members felt that was too costly at a time when Caltrain’s ridership is recovering slowly, as many offices are still closed for Covid, and travel patterns may be permanently changed. 

The new options for consideration increase accountability of the agency to its board with a dedicated executive director and possible additional senior staff reporting to the Caltrain board provide explicit documentation of shared services provided by SamTrans.

Apparently, moving to a full contracting model where services are not only explicitly documented but separately contracted, would invoke renegotiation of pension agreements, which would add more cost.

Since the 1990s when SamTrans funded the right of way purchase to buy a failing commuter rail service from the state, the rail service was incubated with shared executive leadership – the SamTrans General Manager was simultaneously the Caltrain Executive Director; and many back-end services were shared without clear documentation.  Caltrain has been governed by a Joint Powers Agreement among three county agencies, with board representation split among the three counties.

The staff report also lays out the consequences in case an agreement is not reached – if one of the members withdraws, the agency can limp along with two county partners.  If a second member withdraws, the Joint Powers Agreement is terminated within two years.

Importantly, the agency’s lawyer concludes that the state has full authority over a joint powers agreement. So if the parties cannot agree on how to govern Caltrain, the state legislature can step in, and Caltrain partners have no legal recourse. 

The board has also agreed to address repayment for the right of way purchase, which was partially repaid about a decade ago. Legal analysis for today’s meeting clarifies that funds from Measure RR, a dedicated sales tax for Caltrain which was passed last year, cannot be used for Right of Way repayment, since it must be used for Caltrain operations or capital improvements

Hopefully the Caltrain board will reach an agreement that makes the agency more accountable to its board, and allows the board and staff to focus on recovering ridership, completing electrification, and paying attention to the regional topics such as a regional rail study that is slated to consider the governance of the region’s rail system.