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Caltrain's future in limbo after Santa Clara County defers tax measure

A train comes in at the Mountain View Caltrain station on Dec. 17, 2019. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to defer the decision for a Caltrain ballot measure to a special meeting on Aug. 6 -- the last day to approve measures for the November ballot.

In the final item of a 10-hour meeting Tuesday, county lawmakers considered a proposed ballot measure for a one-eighth cent sales tax to prevent Caltrain from potentially shutting down. Caltrain officials said the tax would raise $100 million annually for 30 years to keep the transit agency afloat.

According to officials, $40 million would go directly to funding Caltrain operations.

The commuter railroad is at risk of shuttering after its ridership exponentially decreased due to the ongoing pandemic. In order to keep Caltrain running, sales tax measures need to be approved in the three counties it operates - San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Last week, San Francisco County supervisors decided not to support a sales tax measure - putting Caltrain's future in limbo.

The proposed tax measure was supported by a coalition of local leaders -- such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and San Francisco Mayor London Breed -- who said "this is much needed and desired" in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

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"For an agency dependent wholly on the voluntary annual contribution of transit agencies in each of the three partner counties, this approach provides Caltrain for the first time with a dedicated source of revenue," Liccardo said in a blog post Monday evening.

However, not everyone was on board with the proposed sales tax hike to save Caltrain.

"Putting a toss-up measure on the ballot that requires two-thirds (vote) -- sending a mixed message about what it does or doesn't do -- is a surefire way to lose a tough battle," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

During the board meeting, Ruth Bernstein, CEO of EMC Research, shared two polls that showed the measure would fall short of the required two-thirds vote to pass.

A poll last month showed 65.6% of respondents would support such a measure, a slight increase from 63.5% in March 2019.

A woman sits by herself on the lower level of a train car as Caltrain pulls outs of the Mountain View train station on March 13, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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Of the dozen speakers during the marathon meeting, a handful supported the proposed measure.

"Our ability to keep this system running is at risk without this modest sales tax measure," said Caltrain board member Jeannie Bruins.

Bruins added that getting rid of Caltrain would "dump four lanes of traffic" onto Highway 101.

According to Caltrain, its ridership dropped 97% in April. Its total ridership in April plummeted from 1.59 million in 2019 to 38,858 this year. The transit agency relied on passenger fares for 70% of its budget.

The 156-year-old Caltrain commuter railroad reported that its June ridership increased from 1,500 per day to 3,200 per day.

Longtime riders on Wednesday said losing Caltrain would create a major disruption in their lives.

"It would be damn-near impossible to see my daughter," said Adrian Olage, a San Jose resident who uses Caltrain -- among other public transit -- to meet with his daughter in Madera.

Monica Mallon, a frequent Caltrain rider and transportation advocate, called the potential loss "devastating."

"I don't know if I would be able to afford to live in this area any more," she said.

Another challenge is determining which agency will manage Caltrain and potential new tax revenue sources. It's currently run by SamTrans in San Mateo County and some officials say that agency has mismanaged funds and lacks accountability in its governance.

A new plan unveiled Tuesday would direct revenue from the proposed tax measure into an escrow account controlled by the three-county Joint Powers Board that manages the Peninsula rail system, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Liccardo said Santa Clara and San Francisco counties provide the majority of annual funding to Caltrain, but SamTrans officials have no accountability to those taxpayers.

"It is intolerable for my city's and county's taxpayers to be told to simply ship $56 million annually to SamTrans staff, but not to worry our pretty little heads about longstanding inequities of governance when staff recommends how and where to spend that money," Liccardo wrote in a Medium post. "Nearly 3 million people who live outside of San Mateo County's borders pay taxes to support a highly staff-controlled agency without any elected representatives capable of hiring or firing that senior staff."

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Caltrain's future in limbo after Santa Clara County defers tax measure

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Thu, Jul 23, 2020, 12:37 pm

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to defer the decision for a Caltrain ballot measure to a special meeting on Aug. 6 -- the last day to approve measures for the November ballot.

In the final item of a 10-hour meeting Tuesday, county lawmakers considered a proposed ballot measure for a one-eighth cent sales tax to prevent Caltrain from potentially shutting down. Caltrain officials said the tax would raise $100 million annually for 30 years to keep the transit agency afloat.

According to officials, $40 million would go directly to funding Caltrain operations.

The commuter railroad is at risk of shuttering after its ridership exponentially decreased due to the ongoing pandemic. In order to keep Caltrain running, sales tax measures need to be approved in the three counties it operates - San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Last week, San Francisco County supervisors decided not to support a sales tax measure - putting Caltrain's future in limbo.

The proposed tax measure was supported by a coalition of local leaders -- such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and San Francisco Mayor London Breed -- who said "this is much needed and desired" in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

"For an agency dependent wholly on the voluntary annual contribution of transit agencies in each of the three partner counties, this approach provides Caltrain for the first time with a dedicated source of revenue," Liccardo said in a blog post Monday evening.

However, not everyone was on board with the proposed sales tax hike to save Caltrain.

"Putting a toss-up measure on the ballot that requires two-thirds (vote) -- sending a mixed message about what it does or doesn't do -- is a surefire way to lose a tough battle," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

During the board meeting, Ruth Bernstein, CEO of EMC Research, shared two polls that showed the measure would fall short of the required two-thirds vote to pass.

A poll last month showed 65.6% of respondents would support such a measure, a slight increase from 63.5% in March 2019.

Of the dozen speakers during the marathon meeting, a handful supported the proposed measure.

"Our ability to keep this system running is at risk without this modest sales tax measure," said Caltrain board member Jeannie Bruins.

Bruins added that getting rid of Caltrain would "dump four lanes of traffic" onto Highway 101.

According to Caltrain, its ridership dropped 97% in April. Its total ridership in April plummeted from 1.59 million in 2019 to 38,858 this year. The transit agency relied on passenger fares for 70% of its budget.

The 156-year-old Caltrain commuter railroad reported that its June ridership increased from 1,500 per day to 3,200 per day.

Longtime riders on Wednesday said losing Caltrain would create a major disruption in their lives.

"It would be damn-near impossible to see my daughter," said Adrian Olage, a San Jose resident who uses Caltrain -- among other public transit -- to meet with his daughter in Madera.

Monica Mallon, a frequent Caltrain rider and transportation advocate, called the potential loss "devastating."

"I don't know if I would be able to afford to live in this area any more," she said.

Another challenge is determining which agency will manage Caltrain and potential new tax revenue sources. It's currently run by SamTrans in San Mateo County and some officials say that agency has mismanaged funds and lacks accountability in its governance.

A new plan unveiled Tuesday would direct revenue from the proposed tax measure into an escrow account controlled by the three-county Joint Powers Board that manages the Peninsula rail system, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Liccardo said Santa Clara and San Francisco counties provide the majority of annual funding to Caltrain, but SamTrans officials have no accountability to those taxpayers.

"It is intolerable for my city's and county's taxpayers to be told to simply ship $56 million annually to SamTrans staff, but not to worry our pretty little heads about longstanding inequities of governance when staff recommends how and where to spend that money," Liccardo wrote in a Medium post. "Nearly 3 million people who live outside of San Mateo County's borders pay taxes to support a highly staff-controlled agency without any elected representatives capable of hiring or firing that senior staff."

Comments

Fat Cats
Whisman Station
on Jul 23, 2020 at 12:53 pm
Fat Cats, Whisman Station
on Jul 23, 2020 at 12:53 pm
29 people like this

The Caltrain annual budget is $50 million. They want double that in a new sales tax each year - and for the next 30 years. Trains could be relics long before then. Already, they have proven useless during a pandemic. With San Francisco not willing to put this TAX MONEY GRAB on the ballot, it won't get there. And too bad. It would be roundly rejected by voters.


Cliff Chambers
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2020 at 2:43 pm
Cliff Chambers, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2020 at 2:43 pm
18 people like this

I am an ardent supporter and occasional rider of Caltrain (pre-Covid). However, a sales tax is very regressive and disproportionately burdens our lower income residents of Mountain View. I am totally against the approval of a sales tax as a permanent funding source of Caltrain.

There IS a need for a new organizational structure and permanent funding source. I would suggest serious study of a Transit District with taxing authority and a payroll tax across the three counties. This would provide equitable management and tax structure since Peninsula employers benefit greatly from the service. Other tax sources should be studied, but the sales tax discussion should be shelved in this era of improved economic and racial justice.

Let's not go with the status quo thinking. Let's provide permanent new organizational and funding source that has good governance and is equitable. Leaders in the three counties: let's do this RIGHT!


Otto Maddox
Monta Loma
on Jul 23, 2020 at 3:19 pm
Otto Maddox, Monta Loma
on Jul 23, 2020 at 3:19 pm
23 people like this

There's nothing written in stone (or law) that says CalTrain can't just fail.

There is no point in running nearly empty (or actually empty) trains right now.

How about you RAISE FARES to cover the cost? Let the people who use it pay for it? I know, crazy.

I'm not approving one more tax increase for anything that isn't directly going to solve the COVID crisis.

Time to make the hard decisions and live within our means people.


Robyn
another community
on Jul 23, 2020 at 3:53 pm
Robyn, another community
on Jul 23, 2020 at 3:53 pm
14 people like this

I agree with Otto!


Dan Waylonis
Jackson Park
on Jul 23, 2020 at 4:13 pm
Dan Waylonis, Jackson Park
on Jul 23, 2020 at 4:13 pm
12 people like this

Trains are an anachronism. And unless they're close to capacity, a money losing venture, not to mention the expensive employee costs for healthcare and pensions. Maybe as an experiment, see if the private sector can come up with a better use of the rails. Smaller cars? Electric trains?


one step forward and two steps back
Cuesta Park
on Jul 23, 2020 at 5:01 pm
one step forward and two steps back, Cuesta Park
on Jul 23, 2020 at 5:01 pm
9 people like this

Amazing how the virus seems to have an effect also on clear thinking. Not very long ago the bay area was suffering from atrocious traffic and Caltrain was regularly at full capacity. Parking was often totally full very early in the day.
And now people are ok with letting this alternative mode of transportation just go. HELLO? Where is the logic here. We will eventually get over the virus, via proper behavioral methods first, then with the help of medicine(s) and vaccine(s) and eventually life will be normal again. With all the problems we had before, including congestion.
Please take this into account when arguing that there is no need to maintain Caltrain.


Techfan
Old Mountain View
on Jul 23, 2020 at 5:58 pm
Techfan, Old Mountain View
on Jul 23, 2020 at 5:58 pm
12 people like this

We should not support public entities but private ones. They are much more innovative because they are driven by a profit motive. A good case in point is Tesla: Alameda county gave into their demands so they could reopen against the rules that apply for everyone else.
Public entities are just a drain on the economy. Just look at Europe: They have great public transport, no need for a car, but the average income sucks and they can't get their economies up to speed.


Tina
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2020 at 9:29 am
Tina, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2020 at 9:29 am
29 people like this

Web Link

The reality and politics of pensions. Get informed folks!

Caltrain administrators in San Carlos oversee the rail line but have contracted the railroad’s operation and maintenance to Amtrak, the nation’s largest such company, since it took over commuter service in 1992.

Caltrain thus bears the brunt of whatever salary deals are struck between Amtrak and its unions. In fact, Caltrain administrators — who have seen their own payroll rise 14 percent in three years — have long said they don’t know what their rank-and-file employees make.

The recent wage increases were almost entirely the result of a new contract reached between powerful, centuries-old U.S. rail unions and Amtrak’s management, based in Washington, D.C.

The unions threatened to strike in 2007 — thereby shutting down the nation’s Amtrak-operated rail lines, including Caltrain — if the employees did not get big pay hikes. But an emergency mediation board appointed by President George W. Bush helped the parties reach an agreement based largely on the government’s recommendation to hand out salary increases similar to what freight railroad workers had already received.

The deal Amtrak and 19 union groups struck in 2008 not only included pay hikes for that year and the next, but also built-in retroactive wage bumps dating back as far as 2002. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the larger unions, received a 33 percent total hourly wage boost, for instance.

“It really doesn’t matter that it’s Caltrain or Metrolink (in Southern California) or even state-sponsored trains,” they all got the same raises, said Pat Merrill, Amtrak’s western assistant vice president for policy and development. In all, 16,000 employees received salary increases in a contract that cost Amtrak $436 million.

The salary increases for staffers assigned to Caltrain were also due in part to cost-of-living adjustments, changes in work hours and overtime.


Kathy
another community
on Jul 24, 2020 at 10:21 pm
Kathy, another community
on Jul 24, 2020 at 10:21 pm
17 people like this

If Caltrain has to shut down temporarily, it can start up again after the other agencies give it money from already existing sales taxes. Or....some labor costs could get cut...gasp...


Cat C
Cuesta Park
on Jul 26, 2020 at 8:04 pm
Cat C, Cuesta Park
on Jul 26, 2020 at 8:04 pm
8 people like this

Agree with Cliff - this is a mostly commuter train, so payroll taxes should help cover it. Funding Caltrain has always been tricky since one of the three transit agencies inevitably kicks responsibility to the other two, which is how a train with $150k median rider income is somehow always broke.

I also second the need for a regional transit authority to take over Caltrain. We can’t keep acting like what happens one county over doesn’t affect us at all.

I don’t believe privatizing is the right idea, because mass transit really only works as a public good. We’ve seen what private equity has done to other public goods like local journalism across the country for instance - slashed budgets, mass layoffs, far less coverage, less holding the wealthy and powerful to account/ disadvantaging the rest of us more, and furthering income inequality. We shouldn’t let the same happen to Caltrain.


Ahem
another community
on Jul 26, 2020 at 9:02 pm
Ahem, another community
on Jul 26, 2020 at 9:02 pm
14 people like this

@one step,

Caltrain is dead and it is not coming back.

The pandemic has changed everything. People understand germ theory better than Caltrain management and are avoiding Caltrain like the plague. Even if we find a Covid-19 vaccine or develop herd immunity, Caltrain is ill-adapted and totally unprepared to deal with the next deadly pandemic.

Caltrain ridership is down 95-97%. Most of the people who used to ride Caltrain have already purchased automobiles and have become accustomed to the convenience, utility, and safety they offer. Many others have discovered tele-work and no longer need Caltrain to commute.

Postponing the Caltrain tax is not enough. We need emergency legislation to claw back the funds already allocated to this dead-end transportation technology. The recovered funds should be used to aid people who need help purchasing an automobile and to buy ride-share passes for people who are unable to drive.

Wall Street Journal (6/28/2020):
"Public Transit Use Is Associated With Higher Coronavirus Death Rates"
Web Link


a mv resident
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 26, 2020 at 11:53 pm
a mv resident, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 26, 2020 at 11:53 pm
13 people like this

Why can't we just paved over the tracks and exclusively run public busses on them with volume based on demand and routes people seek?


Ahem
another community
on Jul 27, 2020 at 1:49 am
Ahem, another community
on Jul 27, 2020 at 1:49 am
13 people like this

@a mv resident,

Excellent idea. Electric buses would come a lot closer to finally solving the "last mile" problem that Caltrain has never been able to solve and electric buses could eventually be fully automated radically reducing the operating costs of the system.

Buses would be a lot quieter and would be much better at coexisting with the existing road based transportation that carries >99% of the passenger-miles traveled every year.


Dan Waylonis
Jackson Park
on Jul 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm
Dan Waylonis, Jackson Park
on Jul 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm
12 people like this

@a mv resident: That's a great idea! I recall that in Lima Peru, there's a separate roadway for buses to run. Nice stations and as you said, variable number of buses on demand. Plus the buses could be autonomous so no more need to expensive CalTrain personal.


Bill McFarland
Willowgate
on Jul 27, 2020 at 7:26 pm
Bill McFarland, Willowgate
on Jul 27, 2020 at 7:26 pm
8 people like this

I live close to the train and I know it's nearly empty because I see it everyday. I used to ride it every day, 5 days a week when I worked in San Jose. I loved it! Today I counted THREE cars in the train parking lot at 3pm.

So why don't they scale back to a Saturday schedule with a train every 1.5 hours in each direction? It seems silly to me to run it every hour and they recently added back in a few limited-stop trains during morning and evening rush hours.


Old Steve
Rex Manor
on Jul 28, 2020 at 8:21 am
Old Steve, Rex Manor
on Jul 28, 2020 at 8:21 am
2 people like this

Folks, Please explain how PCJPB (Owners of Caltrain) maintains UPRR's freight service by paving over the tracks? I suppose we could buy out the Freight rights, but we'd need to find the money for that. People are riding transit again, as I see VTA buses posted as "full" from time to time. Yes, full in a socially distant way of course. Let's put a 10 year sunset on any dedicated funding, and if we are all in self driving vehicles by then, sell off brand new rolling stock (EMU's) and let UPRR have their exclusive freight rights back. Anybody seen what freight only railroad corridors look like these days?
Ride ACE through the East Bay, one homeless camp after another. In Omaha, UPRR does not care what we think of their "maintenance of way" operation.


Christopher Chiang
North Bayshore
on Jul 28, 2020 at 11:08 am
Christopher Chiang, North Bayshore
on Jul 28, 2020 at 11:08 am
8 people like this

Not sure if this could work in practicality, but it would be innovative if it could! There are buses that can also drive on rails, avoiding the need to pave or reduce freight use, and allows Transit to scale up/down, flex routes in ways not possible now.

Excerpt:
Toyota and its truck-making subsidiary Hino Motors have signed on with Japan Rail Hokkaido to develop the vehicles, which carry 25 people and reportedly burn one-fourth the amount of diesel fuel required by conventional buses. Japan Rail started testing them about 18 months ago, and bringing Toyota aboard could speed up development and commercialization of what may be the mass transit vehicle of the future.
Web Link

@old steve, I've always trusted your analysis, is this feasible?


Old Steve
Rex Manor
on Jul 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm
Old Steve, Rex Manor
on Jul 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm
Like this comment

@Chris,

The main question would be what do we do with Caltrain in the meantime as Commercialization of rail-wheeled buses likely matches with my ten-year sunset above. Also pretty ironic if a decade after making Caltrain "green" by Electrification, we went backwards to railwheeled diesel buses. Smaller vehicle also means higher operating costs. The railwheel technology would also mean such buses would need raised platforms at all stops in order to be ADA compliant. Given all of those complications, in service would be more likely 15-20 yrs so we still need Caltrain somehow when travel resumes.


Name hidden
Old Mountain View

on Jul 28, 2020 at 3:56 pm
Name hidden, Old Mountain View

on Jul 28, 2020 at 3:56 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Ahem
another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 12:52 pm
Ahem, another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 12:52 pm
4 people like this

What if you just paved around the rails?

UP could still have their freight right-of-way for moving heavy freight in the evenings and the paved roadway could be used during the day by right-sized battery-powered buses for moving people. Caltrain could even give UP a right-of-way to move lighter freight during the day on some sort of electric freight bus.

We really need to move beyond Caltrain's fossilized 19th century approach to transportation or we are going to end up with a 19th century city built around it.


Ahem
another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 1:17 pm
Ahem, another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 1:17 pm
8 people like this

@Old Steve,

Caltrain is not going to come back unless they make a massive investment in some sort of system or technology to protect passengers from the next deadly pandemic disease.

Any technology that depends on mass compression of social-distance to achieve economies of scale is obsolete.


Old Steve
Rex Manor
on Jul 29, 2020 at 2:11 pm
Old Steve, Rex Manor
on Jul 29, 2020 at 2:11 pm
32 people like this

@Ahem, Someday you might be right. Check transit use in Asian countries where Covid is under control. The subways are in use in New York. People will get tired of working from home, I know I am already tired of it. New EMU's are paid for and being built. Poles and wires are being erected. We need to give Caltrain a chance after Covid before we spend more money on unproven technology. More paving means more drainage, several million $ a mile x 75 miles, plus new vehicles that don't exist yet...


One step
Cuesta Park
on Jul 29, 2020 at 5:19 pm
One step, Cuesta Park
on Jul 29, 2020 at 5:19 pm
Like this comment

@Ahem and others
The simultaneous critique of Caltrain as dangerous during the pandemic together with the suggestion for buses as an attractive alternative strikes me as bizarre. Or did you mean to add that the buses would be for individuals and families only...?
And as Old Steve correctly pointed out: If we could all take note of the proper measures to protect us and others - and these measures are simple, known and clear - we could all use public transport as is possible without incidents in many countries in Europe and Asia.
It is sad to see that it seems easier for folks to rant against Caltrain than to protecting yourself and others with a few simple steps for a little while.


Ahem
another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 8:16 pm
Ahem, another community
on Jul 29, 2020 at 8:16 pm
Like this comment

@Old Steve,

It is a little premature to start using Asia or New York as an example of a passenger-rail system surviving the pandemic. Transit system use in Asia and New York are still only a fraction of what they used to be and didn't we just have a resurgence of of COVID-19 in Wuhan and New York, and a new outbreak in Beijing? I don't think people are using these passenger-rail systems because they want to. They are using them because they have no other practical choice. Unfortunately it is the poorest among us who will be the first forced back onto these crowded systems to serve as lab rats for those with greater resources.

We are very fortunate in the Bay Area to have several COVID-safe options to passenger-rail. We have an extensive system of roads and highways where people can maintain a safe social-distance within their own vehicle and we have a workforce that was easily reconfigured for tele-work.

Once upon a time London's streets doubled as open sewers. At some point as London's mobility and density increased that became unsustainable and disease spread like wildfire forcing London to make a massive investment in sanitary systems or cease to exist.

We are at a similar crossroad. Mobility and density driven global pandemics are the new norm and transportation systems (planes and trains) that compress social-distance to achieve economies of scale are the open sewers of our shrinking globe.

Adapt or die.




Old Steve
Rex Manor
on Jul 30, 2020 at 8:26 am
Old Steve, Rex Manor
on Jul 30, 2020 at 8:26 am
2 people like this

@Ahem, Then I guess you advocate for no more sports, no more theater, no more indoor dining EVER as well?? These things have all been foreclosed by Covid as well, but they will come back and public transit won't?

We can agree to disagree. All of these systems developed since the last World Wide Pandemic. If they were never going to work, why did we use them for 100 years?

I am done.


Fat Cats
Whisman Station
on Jul 30, 2020 at 12:13 pm
Fat Cats, Whisman Station
on Jul 30, 2020 at 12:13 pm
8 people like this

The politicians have not yet given up putting a 30-year sales tax money grab on the November ballot for a COVID GRAVY TRAIN that will keep paying for sky-high salaries, benefits, and pensions and will promote the separate plan for HIGH SPEED RAIL barreling up and down the Peninsula.


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