Caltrain faces uncertain future as SF Sups nix potential funding stream

Before COVID-19, Caltrain was one of the most popular commuter rail services in the country. Now, its entire future may be in doubt.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors halted an effort by Caltrain to put an 1/8-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot. That stream could have generated $100 million per year in dedicated funding for Caltrain. To get on the ballot, Caltrain needed approval from four transit boards and three county Boards of Supervisors.

By not allowing the measure to go before voters in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, San Francisco’s Supervisors killed the effort.

Like other rail and transit services, Caltrain has seen a precipitous drop off in customers during the pandemic. Unlike other systems, Caltrain gets the majority of its budget from customer fares. Caltrain also does not have a dedicated funding stream, relying on San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties to help plug budget holes.

That tenuous position can make it difficult to plan for the future, which the system was doing before COVID-19. Caltrain is in the midst of system-wide electrification and long-term service expansion to increase frequency. All of that is in doubt now.

Without the dedicated funding stream, Caltrain leaders say the system faces financial end-times and may be forced to end service.

“We may have little or no rail service on the Peninsula by the end of the year when federal funding is exhausted,” San Mateo Supervisor Dave Pine, who chairs the Caltrain board, told the San Francisco Chronicle this week.

San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton have criticized Caltrain for its governance in the past and led efforts to stop the tax measure this week.

West Valley transit activists are springing into action, calling on the San Francisco Supervisors to reconsider.