Santa Clara County holds Caltrain fate in its hands

Following action Tuesday evening by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Santa Clara’s Board holds the cards in Caltrain’s future.

Santa Clara’s Board of Supervisors is set to vote in coming days on the controversial proposal San Francisco’s Board approved. With San Francisco for a new approach to Caltrain funding and San Mateo supporting a simpler effort, Santa Clara’s leaders have a choice to make.

At the heart of the dispute are proposed governance reforms at Caltrain, which has efficiencies in joint administration with SamTrans. A joint powers board, run by elected officials from the three counties, provides oversight. San Mateo County leaders have expressed willingness to negotiate existing governance, but don’t want it tied to the funding needed for operations of the system.

Local leaders have said Caltrain could be forced to little or no service unless new revenue sources are identified. The popular commuter rail line has seen devastating losses due to COVID-19. Unlike most other transit systems, Caltrain’s only dedicated revenue stream is from ridership.

Sales tax with or without conditions?

While Caltrain leaders, and elected officials in San Mateo County, have advocated for a 1/8-cent sales tax to provide dedicated funding for the system, San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton successfully persuaded that county’s board to add a number of conditions to the funding.

San Francisco’s approach would send the sales tax revenue into an escrow account. Initially that would offset San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties’ contributions, while leaving San Mateo to pony up. In subsequent years, it would require a new governance structure for Caltrain before releasing the funds.

San Mateo County leaders immediately decried San Francisco’s vote Tuesday, calling it a non-starter. Leaders there question its legality, which Supervisor Peskin seemingly does not think is an issue. Peskin declined to tell the San Francisco Chronicle if the City’s Attorney had analyzed the proposal.

“As far as we know, it’s legal,” Peskin texted the outlet Tuesday.

To get on the November ballot in the three counties, the language must pass each county’s Board of Supervisors. That is in addition to approvals from other transit agencies as well.

Santa Clara’s Board could choose to support keeping governance debates and basic operations separate. Or, it could follow San Francisco, putting the future of Caltrain on the line as a bargaining chip.