Seeking to ward off the financial collapse of Caltrain, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed on Tuesday to support placing on the November ballot a sales tax measure to fund the transit agency's operations — a move that offers the proposal a path forward after weeks of uncertainty.
The board's vote offers Caltrain a last-minute reprieve after weeks of dispute and acrimony that have left the tax measure — and the agency — on the brink of collapse. Despite widespread support for retaining the popular train service, transit officials and elected representatives have clashed over the issue of governance reforms, which some had argued needed to be included as part of any tax proposal.
Supervisors from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have long complained about the fact that San Mateo County has the lion's share of control over Caltrain operations. But while supervisors from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties made the case for governance reforms, San Mateo supervisors countered that including these reforms in the tax measure would be illegal. After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted last week to tie funding to governance reforms, the effort hit a seemingly insurmountable obstacle on Friday, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency fell a vote shy of approving the placement of the San Francisco-approved measure on the ballot.
Any ballot measure would require approval from all three boards of supervisors and four transit agencies before it can be placed on the ballot.
Now, with just days left until the Aug. 7 deadline for placing the one-eighth of a cent sales tax on the November ballot, there appears to be a compromise. Cindy Chavez, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and a proponent of government reform, announced at Tuesday's meeting a "compendium resolution" signed by herself, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, San Mateo County Supervisor David Pine and Steve Heminger, a member at the SFMTA board of directors (all four are members of the Caltrain board of directors).
Both Chavez and Walton had advocated over the past month for tying the ballot measure to government reforms, while Pine and Heminger had expressed support for a "clean" tax measure.
The proposed ballot measure, which will go to the Caltrain board for approval on Thursday, would commit the agency to pursue various governance reforms. These include the hiring of an independent auditor and an independent counsel for Caltrain by Nov. 30. Caltrain would also be required to recommend a new governance structure or procedures to the three counties by no later than Dec. 31, 2021.
"Taken together, these resolutions will address Caltrain's critical funding need while also focusing our efforts on addressing the long standing issues regarding the governance relationships and management of Caltrain," the letter co-signed by Chavez, Walton, Pine and Heminger states.
Chavez, who had previously advocated for coupling the tax with governance reforms, said that the commitments in the resolution allow her to support the original measure, which did not include the changes. While the measure still faces numerous hurdles, the Board of Supervisors' 5-0 vote creates a path forward for a proposal that Caltrain leaders say is desperately needed to ward off the service shutdown.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority will have an opportunity to review the resolution on Thursday evening and both the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and SFMTA board had indicated that they could schedule special meetings this week to consider the "clean" ballot measure. San Mateo County and Caltrain had already approved placing the clean measure on the ballot.
While the ballot measure will not address governance, Chavez said that compendium resolution will address the concerns of those seeking reform. The point, she said, was to "get at least on the record a plan for how we could address governance issues in a timely manner."
"These questions have been swirling around for a while," Chavez said. "I appreciate that folks weren't afraid to roll up their sleeves, keep talking and get to yes."
In Palo Alto, the issue of Caltrain governance also became a sticking point last month, when Mayor Adrian Fine submitted a letter on behalf of the city advocating for placing the tax on the ballot. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois responded by sending his own letter to the various transit agencies and boards of supervisors in the three counties stating that Fine represents only his own views and not those of the council, which had yet to discuss the issue.
On Monday night, the council overcame the epistolary spat and unanimously supported a letter to Santa Clara County advocating for placing the measure on the ballot. The letter also requested that Caltrain and Santa Clara County address the "longstanding and complex issue" of governance. Without a solution, the letter noted, Caltrain is likely to run out of funds before the end of the year and face a $71 million deficit in the next fiscal year.
"Caltrain is a vital link in the region's transit network, which provides critical alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel," Palo Alto's letter states. "Thousands of essential workers and transit-dependent riders continue to use the service."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former Caltrain board member, also included in the council's motion a request that the transit agency "support efforts in the future to work with other jurisdictions on the governance issue." Kniss likened the current funding mechanism for Caltrain to a "handshake" deal between the three counties.
"When the money is there, everything works out well. When it isn't, you get back into a situation as we (have) today," said Kniss, who in the past had advocated for governance reforms. "I don't think we should hang it all up tonight by demanding it."