Editorial: Welcome to Brinkman Station

Your fast, electrified train will depart in a couple of years thanks to one very brave advocate/politician

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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“I felt that the discussions that I heard had not talked about the riders of Caltrain at all,” SFMTA Director Cheryl Brinkman told Streetsblog after her decisive, lone vote on July 31 to nix a conditional, ‘dirty’ proposal by San Francisco supervisors Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton. At the time, the Peskin/Walton measure seemed like the only option available to allow the voters a chance to chime in on a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain next November.

Only last week it still seemed the Caltrain tax was DOA, thanks to a move at the July 14 Board of Supervisors meeting by Walton and Peskin. Peskin and Walton, who sits on the Caltrain Board, were tasked with a procedural move so the Caltrain measure could be considered by San Francisco lawmakers. This is the time of COVID: the other Supervisors seemed distracted, trying to get through the agenda via Zoom, with one of the Supervisors’ pet birds screeching in the background. So Peskin and Walton decided not to bring the item up at all, a maneuver that–as soon as the meeting was adjourned–left them in control of the measure’s future.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Caltrain depot in San Francisco, was shocked when he found out what happened. Peskin and Walton immediately introduced an amended version of the measure, that would have shifted the balance of power by requiring a two-thirds vote on the Caltrain board to authorize spending the millions raised annually from the tax. Since San Francisco holds one-third of the seats on the Caltrain board, this would have given the city universal veto power and the disproportionate leverage that comes with it.

But it was obvious the Peskin/Walton version of the measure, even if San Mateo and Santa Clara agreed to it, was destined to end up in court. SamTrans’s counsel’s legal opinion confirmed the obvious: the measure’s authorizing legislation came from Sacramento. And San Francisco can’t amend state laws.

Staffers for Peskin and Walton who emailed and spoke with Streetsblog tried to play it all down, saying that Caltrain would be fine even if no measure passed or it was defeated in court. But COVID has trashed transit budgets everywhere–and Caltrain, which is dependent on fares to cover 70 percent of its expenditures–would be in severe trouble. And let’s remember the tax measure was conceived as a way to fund the operational part of Caltrain’s $2 billion electrification project. Without it, Caltrain would be in the weird position of having invested all that money on infrastructure, without the revenue to use it to improve service.

SFMTAAug4-2020
The SFMTA board of directors, with Cheryl Brinkman top right. Image: GovTV

During subsequent public meetings, Walton and Peskin justified their actions by talking about political power, finances, and, notably, developable land on the Caltrain corridor. Peskin said they “drove” up and down the Peninsula to meetings to try and save the measure.

But, as Brinkman said, they never talked about the riders. And that’s what motivated her brave, lonely decision to pull the emergency brake on the entire Peskin/Walton enterprise.

That completely changed the dynamic. Desperate negotiations began. And Caltrain passed separate legislation on governance reform to allow Peskin and Walton to claim victory, which they wasted no time in doing (GreenCaltrain did a great breakdown on how this separate legislation would work). And finally, the SF Board of Supervisors, with no time left and no other options, agreed to pass the original ‘clean’ measure, the one that conformed to SB 797, on Friday.

Now the challenge is getting two-thirds of the voters to approve that 1/8 cent tax. If it passes, riders will see much faster and more reliable service on Caltrain, with BART-like headways. And they will owe a debt of gratitude to Brinkman. As opposed to Walton and Peskin, who apparently don’t ride Caltrain, even to go to meetings about Caltrain, and have proven they don’t care much about those who do.

Let’s hope voters keep all this in mind come November–not just when they vote on Caltrain, but when they vote for their elected representatives.

UPDATE: An irate reader reached out to Streetsblog to point out an error in the piece. Apparently, the squawking bird belongs to the Clerk of the Board, Angela Calvillo, not to one of the supes.

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