Did S.F. Supes Kill Caltrain?

Transit advocates accuse Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton of aborting a Nov. ballot measure intended to keep Caltrain running

Caltrain will get its first electric trains soon. But it may not have the cash to run them. Image: Calmod
Caltrain will get its first electric trains soon. But it may not have the cash to run them. Image: Calmod

By 2022, when Caltrain finishes electrifying and replacing its fleet of diesels with fast, modern, non-polluting electric train sets, the hope was to run trains at least every 15 minutes in each direction–creating a service level akin to BART. Instead, thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, when Caltrain gets its new electrified fleet it will continue to operate much like it does now, with hour-long gaps in service.

“There was lots of good work gone into planning how to run a service that would be all-day, all-week, more integrated and equitable,” wrote Friends of Caltrain’s Adina Levin, in a post about a procedural failure yesterday by the Supervisors that could end up preventing a 1/8-cent Caltrain sales tax funding measure from appearing on the November ballot. “A move back to commuter rail would be a huge step back in time.”

(Levin also said there’s a small chance the Supervisors can still fix this, if they act quickly. More on that near the bottom of the post.)

The measure, had it made the ballot and gotten approved by voters, would have raised $108 million annually–which would not only improve service dramatically, but would help save Caltrain from having to basically close down thanks to the financial damage of the COVID-19 crisis. Early polling looked strong, on a measure that would need support from a combined two-thirds of voters in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. The San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara County Supervisors had to approve putting that tax on the ballot (San Mateo has already done so).

“The process for advancing a three-county ballot measure… is certainly one of the root causes of what happened yesterday. Because of the onerous requirement of that enabling legislation, and all the other chaos associated with this pandemic, it appears that some on the San Francisco Supervisors–and in all likelihood, many staff and advocates–didn’t understand until it was too late that a committee referral at yesterday’s meeting was an essential step to getting the measure on the ballot this November,” wrote Ian Griffiths of Seamless Bay Area, in an email to Streetsblog.

Advocates tell Streetsblog that, for the most part, this was supposed to be a procedural matter–the S.F. Supervisors, as Griffiths references, were supposed to motion to refer the issue to committee. However, that never happened during yesterday’s meeting. Word has it that Supervisors Aaron Peskin, who chairs the transportation committee and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and Shamann Walton, who also sits on the Caltrain board, were expected to make the motion and second it. They did not and the other supervisors were apparently unaware of the deadline and procedural requirements until after the meeting was adjourned by Supervisor Norman Yee.

“We (Caltrain staff) have been working on this for many months with staff from S.F. and other counties,” wrote Seamus Murphy, a spokesperson for Caltrain. “Leading up to this, we were assured that SFBOS was briefed and, as recently as Friday, the resolution would be introduced. We learned very late that it would not be.”

“As an SF representative I can’t support continued inequitable representation of Caltrain’s governance and pushing a dedicated sales tax without a commitment to fixing this is tantamount to agreeing to taxation w/o representation. S.F. has no true decision making over CalTrain,” wrote Walton in a post on social media.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes Caltrain’s King Street Station, said he was blindsided by the move. “No one from SFCTA or Caltrain had spoken to me about it or any of my other colleagues. Apparently they expected Sup Peskin or Sup Walton to intro it, but Sup Peskin and Walton said they never made that commitment, and they are both opposed to it,” he wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “Sup. Walton is our Caltrain rep. I don’t think any of the other supervisors were aware of this at all or any controversy over it. I’m just learning about it now, I support it in concept, and am concerned about more funding for Caltrain. I’m calling everyone, meeting with Caltrain now, to determine what options are.”

“Supervisors Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin, acting on behalf of their roles on the Caltrain Joint Powers Board (JPB) and San Francisco County Transportation Authority, respectively, did not introduce the Caltrain ⅛ cent sales tax measure at the Board of Supervisors meeting as would have been required to help put the measure on the November 2020 ballot, according to Senate Bill 797 (Hill). Their decision was guided by the inability to reach consensus on key governance reforms with Peninsula counterparts on the JPB,” wrote a spokesperson for Peskin and Walton in a statement. “A key point for the San Francisco officials was the ability for the JPB to govern Caltrain directly, which is not provided for under the Joint Powers Agreement with SamTrans.”

Advocates told Streetsblog that they agree with reforming Caltrain’s management, and would support peeling it away from SamTrans and folding it into BART. They added, however, that this doesn’t change the immediate need to fund Caltrain or justify cancelling the funding measure.

Apparently, San Francisco still has a short window to fix this through a vote of the full board. “If you are an SF resident call your supervisor right now and ask for an urgency ordinance for them to vote on. And tell three friends,” wrote Levin. “They need to hear from San Francisco residents that they do not want S.F. to kill Caltrain.”

Link here for contact info for the San Francisco Supervisors.

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