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Sales tax would be 'game changer' for pandemic-hit Caltrain, board chair says

A woman sits by herself in a train car as Caltrain pulls into the Menlo Park train station around 5 p.m. on March 13, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged many local transit agencies used to relying on large numbers of ticket-buying riders.

For Caltrain, the pandemic has hit especially hard. That's because it's one of the local transit agencies that has traditionally relied most heavily upon rider fares to cover its costs.

Since the pandemic started, ridership has dipped by 95%, according to a statement from Caltrain. The agency initially cut the number of daily trains to 42, then in June increased operations to 70 trains per day, but even so, ridership remains far lower than the 65,000 passengers who rode Caltrain daily before the pandemic.

In early August, an eighth-cent sales tax barely eked its way onto the November ballot, requiring the OK from seven local agencies to do so.

If the measure passes – it will need the approval of two-thirds of voters to move forward – it will generate about $108 million per year for up to 30 years.

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Proceeds from the measure wouldn't start to come in until the fall of 2021, but the transit agency would be able to borrow against future proceeds from the measure, according to Caltrain board chair and San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine.

Before the pandemic, the idea was to use those funds to help the rail agency's electrification process, aimed at enabling the number of daily riders to triple to about 180,000 up from 65,000, Pine said.

Ticket sales constituted about 70% of the transit agency's revenue, which in good times, was a positive element: A majority of its revenues were self-sustaining and it offered one of the "best fare box returns in the nation," Pine said.

But without many riders and without the ballot measure, Caltrain will probably only be able to run through the end of the year, Pine said. The rail agency's budget is highly dependent on how many people return to using the rail services in the next six months, he said.

To save money, Caltrain has cut the number of trains it runs per day to 70 from 92 and eliminated the Baby Bullet service. And it has received tens of millions of dollars in CARES Act funds. However, some provisions of the funds, which require that staff members be retained, only go so far to help reduce the agency's costs, Pine said.

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As of mid-August, Caltrain's operational budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year still had about a $17.6 million deficit, according to recent agency documents, even factoring in $41.5 million in federal CARES Act funds, a hiring freeze, no universal wage increases and other measures to reduce costs.

If Caltrain had to shut down, it would stop its passenger service but continue to operate the rail corridors the agency is in charge of, including moving projects that have already been funded forward, the documents stated.

The text of the 1/8 cent sales tax measure that was approved to be on the November ballot. Courtesy Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.

One of the reasons that the ballot measure almost didn't get approved was because of ongoing tensions about the structure of Caltrain and how it is governed.

In an Aug. 6 board meeting, board members negotiated for several changes that they wanted the agency to make, enumerated in a resolution approved that day. The resolution states that the members of the Caltrain board want to change the governance structure so that they have more say over who is appointed executive director of the agency, and that the joint powers board will work to reimburse SamTrans for past investments in Caltrain.

The joint powers board – made up of members from all three of the counties along the Caltrain line – said it planned to hire an auditor and legal representatives who don't work with SamTrans by mid to late January. It also planned to develop recommendations for a new governance structure by the end of 2021.

A complex history

Over the years, Caltrain has been owned by a number of agencies. It started in 1863 with the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company before being bought by Southern Pacific Railway in 1870. A century later, the rail commuter business became unprofitable. By 1980, the state helped subsidize the rail service, but by 1988, the state ended its subsidies.

In 1991, the three counties that Caltrain passes through – San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara – created the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority to buy the rail right of way. The $212 million cost was covered by $120 million in funds from Prop. 116, a nearly $2 billion California bond measure from 1990 to invest in rail and other transportation programs, and $82 million advanced from SamTrans, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

In negotiations over the years, steps were laid out for how the other agencies could repay SamTrans' additional contribution to buy the rail right of way. A 1991 agreement said that San Francisco and Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) could do so either by fully reimbursing the transportation agency or by paying their share of the additional contribution based on the rail mileage in each county.

The agreement was renegotiated in 2008 because by 2007, neither of the agencies had started to pay back SamTrans. Compound interest increased the amount owed by the two other agencies to $91.5 million, but the amount was reset to $53.3 million. SamTrans forgave the agencies $38.2 million in exchange for being able to remain the managing agency for Caltrain as long as it chose to do so.

In the 2008 agreement, the plan was for the VTA to pay $8 million, San Francisco to pay $2 million and to have the bulk, $43.3 million, paid by the MTC or Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transportation financing, planning and coordinating agency. VTA has paid SamTrans $8 million; San Francisco has paid back all but $200,000 of its $2 million commitment; and the MTC has paid back $23.7 million, leaving SamTrans still about $19.7 million short of the $53.3 million committed back in 2008.

The Joint Powers Authority designates SamTrans as the managing agency for Caltrain.

The measure faced complications when leaders in two of the three counties, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, pushed back.

It was initially discussed because the agency doesn't have a dedicated source of funding and it is in the process of completing a $2 billion project to electrify the Caltrain line.

Governance challenges

The awkward thing, Pine said, is that the Caltrain board itself can't change the governance of Caltrain. The governance debate, he added, has been ongoing for years and needs to be resolved.

While SamTrans currently manages Caltrain, the Caltrain board has equal membership among all three counties.

Caltrain was created as a joint powers authority between the city and county of San Francisco, SamTrans and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

But SamTrans also manages other operations besides Caltrain, like the paratransit and bus systems in San Mateo County.

The big issue, Pine said, is that the other two counties don't get a say in staffing matters, such as whether to hire or fire the CEO.

The governance tension goes back decades to 1991, when San Mateo County invested $82 million to purchase the trackage rights. Neither San Francisco nor Santa Clara County put money toward that purchase. When the agreement was restructured in 2008, SamTrans essentially gave up $38 million in interest in exchange for the right to be the managing agency "as long as it desired," Pine said.

In other words, SamTrans invested tens of millions of dollars in the Caltrain system for which it was never paid by the other two counties, Pine summarized.

"Passing a sales tax for Caltrain would be a game changer during this time of the COVID pandemic and would allow Caltrain to substantially expand its service in the future," Pine said.

Rider information

To improve safety conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Caltrain cleans and sanitizes its fleet and stations with hospital-grade disinfectants. Surfaces that are regularly touched at stations are wiped down multiple times daily, and crews use spray foggers to clean surfaces midday and overnight. Riders must wear face masks and are asked to maintain at least 6 feet of space from others.

Access the latest weekday schedules here. Weekend schedules are unchanged.

Next steps

The Caltrain board is set to meet Sept. 3 to talk about its 2020-21 budget, as well as hold a public hearing about a separate matter: whether to close the Atherton Caltrain station. Access the meeting agenda packet here for additional information.

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Sales tax would be 'game changer' for pandemic-hit Caltrain, board chair says

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Wed, Sep 2, 2020, 2:53 pm

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged many local transit agencies used to relying on large numbers of ticket-buying riders.

For Caltrain, the pandemic has hit especially hard. That's because it's one of the local transit agencies that has traditionally relied most heavily upon rider fares to cover its costs.

Since the pandemic started, ridership has dipped by 95%, according to a statement from Caltrain. The agency initially cut the number of daily trains to 42, then in June increased operations to 70 trains per day, but even so, ridership remains far lower than the 65,000 passengers who rode Caltrain daily before the pandemic.

In early August, an eighth-cent sales tax barely eked its way onto the November ballot, requiring the OK from seven local agencies to do so.

If the measure passes – it will need the approval of two-thirds of voters to move forward – it will generate about $108 million per year for up to 30 years.

Proceeds from the measure wouldn't start to come in until the fall of 2021, but the transit agency would be able to borrow against future proceeds from the measure, according to Caltrain board chair and San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine.

Before the pandemic, the idea was to use those funds to help the rail agency's electrification process, aimed at enabling the number of daily riders to triple to about 180,000 up from 65,000, Pine said.

Ticket sales constituted about 70% of the transit agency's revenue, which in good times, was a positive element: A majority of its revenues were self-sustaining and it offered one of the "best fare box returns in the nation," Pine said.

But without many riders and without the ballot measure, Caltrain will probably only be able to run through the end of the year, Pine said. The rail agency's budget is highly dependent on how many people return to using the rail services in the next six months, he said.

To save money, Caltrain has cut the number of trains it runs per day to 70 from 92 and eliminated the Baby Bullet service. And it has received tens of millions of dollars in CARES Act funds. However, some provisions of the funds, which require that staff members be retained, only go so far to help reduce the agency's costs, Pine said.

As of mid-August, Caltrain's operational budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year still had about a $17.6 million deficit, according to recent agency documents, even factoring in $41.5 million in federal CARES Act funds, a hiring freeze, no universal wage increases and other measures to reduce costs.

If Caltrain had to shut down, it would stop its passenger service but continue to operate the rail corridors the agency is in charge of, including moving projects that have already been funded forward, the documents stated.

One of the reasons that the ballot measure almost didn't get approved was because of ongoing tensions about the structure of Caltrain and how it is governed.

In an Aug. 6 board meeting, board members negotiated for several changes that they wanted the agency to make, enumerated in a resolution approved that day. The resolution states that the members of the Caltrain board want to change the governance structure so that they have more say over who is appointed executive director of the agency, and that the joint powers board will work to reimburse SamTrans for past investments in Caltrain.

The joint powers board – made up of members from all three of the counties along the Caltrain line – said it planned to hire an auditor and legal representatives who don't work with SamTrans by mid to late January. It also planned to develop recommendations for a new governance structure by the end of 2021.

A complex history

Over the years, Caltrain has been owned by a number of agencies. It started in 1863 with the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company before being bought by Southern Pacific Railway in 1870. A century later, the rail commuter business became unprofitable. By 1980, the state helped subsidize the rail service, but by 1988, the state ended its subsidies.

In 1991, the three counties that Caltrain passes through – San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara – created the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority to buy the rail right of way. The $212 million cost was covered by $120 million in funds from Prop. 116, a nearly $2 billion California bond measure from 1990 to invest in rail and other transportation programs, and $82 million advanced from SamTrans, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

In negotiations over the years, steps were laid out for how the other agencies could repay SamTrans' additional contribution to buy the rail right of way. A 1991 agreement said that San Francisco and Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) could do so either by fully reimbursing the transportation agency or by paying their share of the additional contribution based on the rail mileage in each county.

The agreement was renegotiated in 2008 because by 2007, neither of the agencies had started to pay back SamTrans. Compound interest increased the amount owed by the two other agencies to $91.5 million, but the amount was reset to $53.3 million. SamTrans forgave the agencies $38.2 million in exchange for being able to remain the managing agency for Caltrain as long as it chose to do so.

In the 2008 agreement, the plan was for the VTA to pay $8 million, San Francisco to pay $2 million and to have the bulk, $43.3 million, paid by the MTC or Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transportation financing, planning and coordinating agency. VTA has paid SamTrans $8 million; San Francisco has paid back all but $200,000 of its $2 million commitment; and the MTC has paid back $23.7 million, leaving SamTrans still about $19.7 million short of the $53.3 million committed back in 2008.

The Joint Powers Authority designates SamTrans as the managing agency for Caltrain.

The measure faced complications when leaders in two of the three counties, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, pushed back.

It was initially discussed because the agency doesn't have a dedicated source of funding and it is in the process of completing a $2 billion project to electrify the Caltrain line.

Governance challenges

The awkward thing, Pine said, is that the Caltrain board itself can't change the governance of Caltrain. The governance debate, he added, has been ongoing for years and needs to be resolved.

While SamTrans currently manages Caltrain, the Caltrain board has equal membership among all three counties.

Caltrain was created as a joint powers authority between the city and county of San Francisco, SamTrans and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

But SamTrans also manages other operations besides Caltrain, like the paratransit and bus systems in San Mateo County.

The big issue, Pine said, is that the other two counties don't get a say in staffing matters, such as whether to hire or fire the CEO.

The governance tension goes back decades to 1991, when San Mateo County invested $82 million to purchase the trackage rights. Neither San Francisco nor Santa Clara County put money toward that purchase. When the agreement was restructured in 2008, SamTrans essentially gave up $38 million in interest in exchange for the right to be the managing agency "as long as it desired," Pine said.

In other words, SamTrans invested tens of millions of dollars in the Caltrain system for which it was never paid by the other two counties, Pine summarized.

"Passing a sales tax for Caltrain would be a game changer during this time of the COVID pandemic and would allow Caltrain to substantially expand its service in the future," Pine said.

Rider information

To improve safety conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Caltrain cleans and sanitizes its fleet and stations with hospital-grade disinfectants. Surfaces that are regularly touched at stations are wiped down multiple times daily, and crews use spray foggers to clean surfaces midday and overnight. Riders must wear face masks and are asked to maintain at least 6 feet of space from others.

Access the latest weekday schedules here. Weekend schedules are unchanged.

Next steps

The Caltrain board is set to meet Sept. 3 to talk about its 2020-21 budget, as well as hold a public hearing about a separate matter: whether to close the Atherton Caltrain station. Access the meeting agenda packet here for additional information.

Comments

CyberVoter
Registered user
Atherton: other
on Sep 3, 2020 at 12:22 pm
CyberVoter, Atherton: other
Registered user
on Sep 3, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Caltrain should fix its cost structure & slash unnecessary projects before asking Peninsula residents (who are already in personal financial difficulty) to subsidize their bureaucracy and personal visions. This tax will be a VERY hard sell. Many, many other public services (education, roads, pubic safety, fire protection, COVID services, etc.) are ahead of them in need & value.

They should reallocate the remainder of the $2 Billion "Electrification Project" and create a "sustaining" budget. Please get your "house in order" before asking the over taxed residents to pay for a totally inefficient transportation system


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 3, 2020 at 12:55 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Sep 3, 2020 at 12:55 pm

Getting the necessary votes for this tax at a time that few people are using the train and few people plan on using the train in the near future would require an incredible act of faith by the voters.

It is the right thing to do but the timing is horrible.


[email protected]
Registered user
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 3, 2020 at 3:43 pm
[email protected], Atherton: Lindenwood
Registered user
on Sep 3, 2020 at 3:43 pm

Caltrain has not had a permanent funding source. San Mateo County passed a sales tax measure that provided funding to purchase the rail Right-Right-Of-Way and capital improvements. The San Mateo County Transportation Authority was created to administer the sales tax funds. Within three years there were sufficient funds to purchase the Right-Of-Way. Measure A allocated and prioritized specific safety improvements, including elimination of the hold out configuration for all stations. Now Caltrain is reneging on this commitment to eliminate Atherton’s holdout and installation of the Watkins Avenue quad gates, unless the town agrees to permanently close the rail station, the oldest drop station in the entire state. Caltrain has systematically taken all possible steps to reduce our service. The had promised restoration but now are breaking that promise. When government agencies can not be trusted to keep their promises the public should not support additional tax measures until prior promises are honored. Trust needs to be restored before approving new tax measures. Atherton residents have paid over $10 million in sales tax over the past 20 years, would continue to pay these taxes, and receive no service. This is wrong!!


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 3, 2020 at 4:07 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Sep 3, 2020 at 4:07 pm

Malcolm is, as always, precisely correct.

Unfortunately after Malcolm left the council the effective partnership between the Town and CalTrain was replaced by an adversarial one. When there is such an adversarial relationship there is no trust and good things seldom happen.

One more reason to bring in new council members.


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Sep 3, 2020 at 9:05 pm
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Sep 3, 2020 at 9:05 pm

We are living in a new reality. We have learned that it isn't necessary for people to go to an office to work. Facebook isn't going to have anyone coming back until a year from now at the earliest. I hear Google is the same. And even then the talk is that there will be far fewer employees actually working in the offices. And Pinterest just paid $98 million to get out of a lease in SF. Caltrain is becoming unnecessary.


Reality Check
Registered user
another community
on Sep 4, 2020 at 3:17 pm
Reality Check, another community
Registered user
on Sep 4, 2020 at 3:17 pm

Temporarily lightly-used Caltrain is just as "unnecessary" as the temporarily lightly-used highways running up and down the Peninsula ... traffic congestion and demand for train travel will eventually come back with a vengeance, guaranteed ... oh, and if Caltrain is unnecessary, then someone forgot to tell MTC, SMCTA and Caltrans, because they are presently building out a new Hwy 101 "Express" (variable congestion-dependent toll) lanes the length of San Mateo County for a half-billion dollars. And the latest news is that MTC is now having thoughts of permanently converting all lanes of Hwy 101 and many other Bay Area highways to variable toll lanes (aka "congestion pricing").

Another point: Caltrain has already decided to use 100% green & renewable (carbon emissions-free) electricity to power its new electric trains ... we need such alternatives both for the sustainability, vitality, and livability of the housing and businesses all along the Caltrain corridor and so that people and families do not need as many cars and to drive everywhere all the time for everything ... saving precious road & lane space for those that still need to use it for certain times or trips.

Measure RR, the Caltrain-saving and -improving 1/8¢ sales tax will allow for the Peninsula to get the quieter, modern, clean, electrified, BART-frequency (or better) train service (using state-of-the-art Swiss trains now under construction) that it has long deserved ... linking BART at Millbrae with the BART station VTA is planning to build at San Jose's Diridon Caltrain station for a fraction of the cost or time it would take to replace Caltrain with BART.

Rejecting Measure RR would be repeating the same colossal mistake of the SMCo. Supervisors declining to join the BART District over 50 years ago. BART-like service linking SJ and SF along the length of the Peninsula cities that literally grew up around the 157-year old Caltrain line is long overdue. Let's not be short-sighted and blow it (again!) due to nitpicking (there will always be some nits for nitpickers to pick!) or a temporary pandemic.


JRN
Registered user
Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Sep 7, 2020 at 8:41 am
JRN, Menlo Park: Felton Gables
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2020 at 8:41 am

Mismanagement always turns to the "taxpayers". Caltrans refuses to change there methods, measurements and motivations. There whole program is based on taxpayer handouts.


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Sep 7, 2020 at 9:53 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Sep 7, 2020 at 9:53 am

Reality check:

I don't think these changes are temporary. As I said we are experiencing a new reality. People working at the large businesses in this area don't need to go into an office any more. They don't need to commute. They don't need to ride a train. Pinterest would not have paid $89 million to get out of a lease if they thought they were going to need that space. They don't. And the people that would have been occupying that unneeded space won't need to commute or ride a train. Multiply that over all of the tech businesses in the area and you can see how little Caltrain will be needed.

The highway projects were in the pipeline and started before the pandemic hit and businesses figured out they don't need everyone in an office building. Being in the pipeline the state isn't going to just stop that work.


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