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Even in Crisis, Caltrain Board Takes Passive Role in Decision Making

Has the governing board of Caltrain helped lead riders into the current storm of budget deficits?

As the Mercury News reported today, Caltrain's Joint Powers Board (JPB) has for several years seemed to make its decisions in a passive manner, approving the last three years' worth of agenda items without any deliberation. Despite the apparent pitfalls of relying on an unstable funding stream, members have yet to be seen actively pursuing other dedicated sources of revenue.

The board's charter agreement [pdf] doesn't actually obligate them to do so. The board, comprised of top representatives from SamTrans, the SFMTA, and the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), exists essentially to negotiate their own financial contributions, renew contracts, apply for grants, and approve changes like service cuts.

This policy is different from those at other Bay Area transit agencies like the SFMTA, which is mandated by San Francisco's City Charter to "diligently seek to develop new sources of funding." Lis Kniss, a new Caltrain director who also sits on the VTA board, told the Mercury News she hopes to emulate the more deliberative nature seen in the Santa Clara agency's board meetings.

But for some members, even attendance rates at the monthly meetings is indicative of their level of interest. Nat Ford, board member and Executive Director/CEO of the SFMTA, has missed nearly half of them since 2007, the Mercury News found.

The most promising solutions for the funding crisis have so far come from other organizations like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Friends of Caltrain, a coalition of Peninsula city officials and activists. Earlier this month, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said the need for draconian service cuts currently being considered by the board was "very doubtful."

Short-term fixes proposed by the MTC, including parking fee increases and seeking out more competitive bidders for work contracts, seemed to be news to Caltrain officials. Last week, after giving an update on the Caltrain crisis to the SF County Transportation Authority, JPB Deputy Chief Executive Officer Gigi Harrington would only tell Streetsblog that she was "looking forward to hearing more about" the MTC's ideas.

Even long-term solutions, such as a voter-approved regional gas tax - urged for some time now by advocates - have yet to see any interest from the agency.

The Caltrain board's last meeting saw dozens of speakers show up to plead with directors against proposals for station closures and service reductions that would leave off-peak commuters stranded. Critics argued that any benefits garnered from such a strategy would be outweighed by the loss in ridership.

In the end, without making a single public comment, the board members called it a day.

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