SamTrans accuses VTA, SF of abandoning Caltrain governance review

Officials with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the City and County of San Francisco were accused today of abandoning Caltrain’s governance review process over inquiries into debts the agencies owe to SamTrans dating back more than 30 years, when the three counties partnered to purchase the Caltrain corridor.

VTA and San Francisco representatives who serve on the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB) today opted against participating in the third of five special meetings meant to envision how Caltrain will be governed in the coming years – a review mandated by the voter-approved Measure RR, the 1/8 cent sales tax providing Caltrain with its first dedicated source of funding.

SamTrans officials called the action by its partner agencies to pull out of today’s meeting shocking, unnecessary and “orchestrated.”

“SamTrans is deeply disappointed that its partner agencies have abruptly halted the $2 million plus governance review process in their refusal to participate in the long-planned workshop #3,” said SamTrans Board Chair Charles Stone, adding that the process “was agreed to by the Caltrain Board.”

The dispute centers on the future vision for Caltrain’s governance. San Francisco and VTA members have expressed the desire to dismantle the JPB and increase their respective control of Caltrain operations and management, a prospect SamTrans opposes as expensive and having no clear benefit to riders.

The SamTrans Board of Directors voted on Tuesday to send letters inquiring how San Francisco and the VTA plan to reimburse SamTrans for the $82 million it paid to acquire the Caltrain Right-of-Way back in 1991, which it says amounts to $150 million “in today’s dollars.”

Bev Davis, a representative of the VTA and chair of the JPB, along with Steve Heminger, who represents the City and County of San Francisco on the regional board, said they abandoned today’s meeting over legal reasons. They said SamTrans’ debt inquiry served to initiate legal action against their agencies, a claim SamTrans denied.

“SamTrans sent no demand for immediate payment or any itemization of debt,” Stone said in a statement. “Rather, all it has done, as a good partner seeking transparency, is write letters asking what efforts have been and are being made, as long promised, to reimburse SamTrans for its substantial investments over 30 years.”

Stone added, “Our partners’ refusal to participate in today’s meeting is simply a stark example of why, on behalf of San Mateo County taxpayers, SamTrans has had to demand their attention to the historical failures and seek collections of long past due obligations.”

SamTrans said it remains open to governance improvements that benefit riders. “That is not what I see unfolding,” Stone said.

“What we have witnessed so far is two of the three member agencies seeking to take over control through a new governance structure while leaving large outstanding debts incurred for the current one.”