Caltrain board supports engagement with regional governance

On Friday, the Caltrain board expressed a strong interest in engaging in regional governance discussions. Different board members were interested in different dimensions of a multi-dimensional issue.

Weaving together the regional rail network, starting with Caltrain and BART, was a focus of several board members including Chair Davis and Director Heminger.

Davis focused on service coordination, wanting to see “regional rail operators driving the coordination because we have least flexibility… Our conversations with BART should move toward fare and branding alignment especially since the systems are growing together at Diridon in San Jose and the Salesforce Transbay terminal in San Francisco.”   Heminger agreed that “the systems are growing together, and the governance structure hasn’t caught up yet.”

Several board members including Heminger, Dave Pine, and Jeff Gee wanted a focus on megaproject delivery, since there is are multiple large capital projects needed to flesh out Caltrain’s business plan, with the Downtown Extension in San Francisco, Diridon station, grade separations; plus the Dumbarton Corridor and the Link21 second northern transbay crossing, which could connect the Caltrain like to the East Bay and Sacramento.

Heminger was also interested in exploring the potential for shared services among regional rail operators.  (It seems to your blogger that the strategic planning work that BART and Caltrain staff are doing separately would be better off with the good staff and consultants in the same room).

Service integration and equity

Charles Stone and Cindy Chavez (based on her comments at the previous meeting) want a focus on equity.  Caltrain’s equity studies found that better connections with local transit would be an important strategy to diversify Caltrain’s ridership. Similarly,  the recent regional fare study found that 52% of customers who make at least one transfer live in a household with an income under $50,000. 71% live in households with less than $75,000 in income.

Changing patterns of transit use as the region recovers from the pandemic will affect the need and priorities for service integration.  The future is unclear, and board members have different hypothesis. 

Heminger commented that I would bet that the railroads will fare better than bus services in this transition. Meanwhile, data from MTC’s board workshop shows that ridership on local services has returned more quickly than regional commute services.. On regional systems, weekend ridership has returned more quickly than weekday. Overall, ridership recovery is being led by people who depend on transit, and trips other than white collar commutes.


Director Gee expressed concern that regional decisionmaking might be slower and less flexible than today’s system, where each transit agency makes separate decisions.  Other board members have raised this concern over time.

However, the staff presentation gave an example where the current system is the opposite of nimble. In order to add acting Executive Director Michelle Bouchard to the Clipper Executive Board, it require agreement among 27 transit agencies, by which time the next-generation Clipper 2.0 project might already be complete.  In addition, consultant Ratna Amin referred to the glacial pace of planning for regional projects that require collaboration among numerous agencies.  There are areas where the region’s fragmentation results in more cumbersome and slower decision-making.

Need for Funding

Directors Stone and Zmuda focused on the need for funding to deliver fare and service integration.  Fortunately, transit service integration is extraordinarily popular with the public. Yet another poll from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission being shared at this week’s commission workshop finds that “a super -majority of Bay Area residents agree the following items are important:

  • 92% – easy to use and uniform maps and signage
  • 90% – single mobile app for planning, schedules, and information
  • 89% – a single set of fares, passes, discounts, and transfer policies 

An open door to discuss BART and Caltrain

Based on board member comments, there is an open door to discuss how and in which ways Caltrain and BART can act more as a single system. Davis focused on service integration, providing integrated fares, schedules, branding.  Director Gee was interested in exploring opportunities among rail services that cross counties, but wanted analysis rather than a specific means.   Heminger is on record as supporting a merger between BART and Caltrain.

Director Stone was deeply skeptical of a merger, and expressed specific (and potentially addressable) concerns.  Stone noted that San Mateo County and Santa Clara County aren’t currently represented on the BART board.  Stone expressed concern “if we needed to pay into the BART district that sounds like double taxation.”  This is alluding to the BART agreement that obligates counties participating in the district need to join the BART tax structure, and the poison pill requiring counties that join later to pay back taxes. Director Gee noted that Measure RR needs to continue to be used for the purposes voters intended, service and capital projects. Gee also wants to make sure that shorter trips continue to be supported.   Board representation, the preservation of the Caltrain service vision and the goals of Measure RR seem like reasonable prerequisites.

Integrated regional rail and the public interest

Director Hendricks expressed puzzlement by the interest of business organization Bay Area Council in polling about a BART-Caltrain merger, and the interest of voters in supporting it overwhelmingly. Hendricks did not think that there should be any role for the public, and discussion of mergers should only happen behind closed doors.

This skepticism is missing the important point that there is a deep well of pent-up demand to have the region’s core rail services to function as an integrated system for individual and institutional customers.  It is a fundamental public policy question as to whether the region’s rail services and regional capital planning should act as one system.

As Caltrain’s lead planner Sebastian Petty noted, It would take serious analysis to assess different levels of integration, including sharing customer-facing fares, schedules and branding; sharing organizational functions such as megaproject planning and delivery, pursuit of funding, and other operational functions, to determine what sorts of coordination and integration would be most effective.  

With a set of goals established, the details of deals would get worked out behind the scenes in closed sessions and/or legislative offices.

In the discussion, Caltrain board members had a mix of motivations including positive goals, and fears of potential risks. Chair Davis wanted transit to be as convenient as driving.   Pine commented that the business plan’s goals require fare and schedule integration.

Other board members focused on the risks to avoid.  Hendricks crystallized this view with the saying “if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”, which was echoed by several other board members.

Multiple next steps

With this open door, there will be many next steps to explore opportunities to weave Caltrain into a more integrated transit system, including

  • The next steps toward regional fare integration
  • A regional network management business case study
  • A regional rail study covering megaproject delivery and regional rail governance options
  • MTC updating its regional rail capital plan

For those interested in seeing Caltrain as part of an integrated regional rail and transit service, and achieving the goals of Caltrain’s business plan for frequent, well-integrated, equitable service, there will be ongoing opportunities to weigh in.