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SamTrans Poll Shows Strong Support for Tax Measures to Support Caltrain

3:29 PM PDT on October 12, 2012

The Green Caltrain blog has some promising news today for moving Caltrain toward a stable funding solution. Adina Levin from Friends of Caltrain reports:

At its board meeting on Thursday, SamTrans announced the results of polling that it conducted in June. According to the poll, a ballot measure to support Caltrain and SamTrans would pass, barely, at the 66% threshold required in California. The transit agency is considering a ballot measure on the 2014 ballot to address the underlying financial problems.

The poll found stronger support for a 1/4 cent sales tax to support Caltrain and SamTrans than for a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain alone. High priorities for voters include reducing traffic, providing stable funding for Caltrain, supporting transit for the elderly and disabled, and supporting infrastructure.

The poll also showed that Caltrain electrification is massively popular, with 79% of voters in favor.  The controversy over High Speed Rail in recent years has not blunted the overwhelming support for cleaner, faster, more frequent service.

Voters expressed greater support for the tax after the poll asked voters questions about their priorities and values transit service. This strongly suggests that a ballot measure would get better results if there was a campaign to encourage voters to consider the benefits of transit service. Transit supporters have between now and 2014 to raise awareness.

Caltrain relies on unstable funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and local transit agencies along the Peninsula. As we've reported, the Caltrain Board has declared numerous fiscal emergencies while taking little action to solve the problem in the long run. Although the agency managed to avert devastating service cuts in the last budget cycle, transit advocates have come together to push for long-term measures to ensure riders' access to quality transit isn't threatened every time the partner agencies reduce their share of the pot.

The need for solutions is pressing. Levin points out that SamTrans, which Caltrain relies on heavily for funding, already can see its next crisis on the horizon. "The last time SamTrans did a comprehensive financial review in the summer of 2011, it was expected to be bankrupt in 2015," she said, although she noted that the next review is expected this winter.

There are two main options for establishing stable funding for Caltrain, Levin writes:

One is to have a tax in all 3 counties that Caltrain serves, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Another approach is to have a tax in San Mateo County only, which would stabilize SamTrans. If this approach is taken, it would also be important to strengthen the Joint Powers agreement to fund Caltrain. Even if SamTrans is stabilized, SF Muni or Santa Clara VTA could be next – the agreement would need to be changed so that problems in any of the 3 partners don’t risk crashing Caltrain’s finances in any given year.

Judging by national trends and SamTrans' poll findings, both of these measures hold promise. As Levin notes, transit referendums in American cities had an an 86 percent success rate in the last year, as cities short on federal transit funding looked to local voters for support.

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