After postponing a vote last week, the Atherton City Council on Monday, Oct. 26, approved a plan to shut down Caltrain service in town on Dec. 1 to secure the funding needed to close the town's historic station.
The council voted 4-1, with council member Bill Widmer opposed, to agree to a memorandum of understanding with Caltrain to close the station. It will hold off on signing the agreement until Caltrain reports back on whether it has funds to add quad gates at the Watkins Avenue crossing, said City Manager George Rodericks.
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which owns and operates Caltrain and consists of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, would seek approval from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (TA) for at least 50% match funding for the installation of $800,000 worth of permanent safety fencing and $5 million toward Watkins Avenue crossing safety improvements, per the agreement. The council is asking the transportation agency to cover 100% of the costs for site improvements.
Widmer said he didn't see any recourse in the contract if the stipulations aren't carried out. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis also did not feel comfortable with the agreement, but said she supported going forward so long as it wasn't signed until Caltrain returned with a guarantee of funding for the projects.
Sebastian Petty, Caltrain's deputy chief of planning, said Caltrain officials will ask for funding at the transportation authority's Nov. 5 meeting. He noted that the Joint Powers Board can't assign funds to the projects without securing them first.
"We've pushed the language as much as we can," he said. "This is not a negotiating tactic on our (Caltrain's) part. It's just legally as far as we can go."
Council member Mike Lempres said it was time to move forward with the closure, noting the town lost negotiating leverage by dragging out the agreement talks.
"It's not a question of going back and renegotiating with the JPB," he said. "These (funding station fixes) are real issues we've come across and we're not going to craft our way around them with some sort of different language. ... Caltrain could close the station without our approval. Caltrain has done quite a bit to try to meet our requests when they don't have to."
City Attorney Mona Ebrahimi recommended finalizing the contract soon for more certainty about securing financing from the transportation authority. One of the other funding options is Measure RR, an eighth-cent sales tax dedicated to Caltrain operations and capital improvements, on the Nov. 3 ballot. If RR passes, the projects should be fully funded, but if it doesn't pass, Caltrain's funding will only go toward its most basic needs possible, she said.
The council signed off on a Caltrain proposal to permanently close its historic train station in January because of years of minimal service and low ridership, and a desire to safeguard the town from legislation similar to the recent Senate Bill 50, which would have put cities on the hook for allowing high density housing near public transit. But the town's agreement of how to close the station with the rail service has been delayed as officials have focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.