Santa Clara County defers Caltrain tax measure, transit agency at risk of temporary shut down

File Photo. Caltrain Locomotive 918 heads south in San Mateo County. Photo Copyright: Duncan Sinfield/KTVU.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to defer the decision for a Caltrain ballot measure to a special meeting on Aug. 6 -- the last day to approve measures for the November ballot.

In the final item of a 10-hour meeting Tuesday, county lawmakers considered a proposed ballot measure for a one-eighth cent sales tax to prevent Caltrain from potentially shutting down. Caltrain officials said the tax would raise $100 million annually for 30 years to keep the transit agency afloat.

According to officials, $40 million would go directly to funding Caltrain operations.

The commuter railroad is at risk of shuttering after its ridership exponentially decreased due to the ongoing pandemic. In order to keep Caltrain running, sales tax measures need to be approved in the three counties it operates - San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Last week, San Francisco County supervisors decided not to support a sales tax measure - putting Caltrain's future in limbo.

The proposed tax measure was supported by a coalition of local leaders -- such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and San Francisco Mayor London Breed -- who said "this is much needed and desired" in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

"For an agency dependent wholly on the voluntary annual contribution of transit agencies in each of the three partner counties, this approach provides Caltrain for the first time with a dedicated source of revenue," Liccardo said in a blog post Monday evening.

However, not everyone was on board with the proposed sales tax hike to save Caltrain.

"Putting a toss-up measure on the ballot that requires two-thirds (vote) -- sending a mixed message about what it does or doesn't do -- is a surefire way to lose a tough battle," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

During the board meeting, Ruth Bernstein, CEO of EMC Research, shared two polls that showed the measure would fall short of the required two-thirds vote to pass.

A poll last month showed 65.6 percent of respondents would support such a measure, a slight increase from 63.5 percent in March 2019.

Of the dozen speakers during the marathon meeting, a handful supported the proposed measure.

"Our ability to keep this system running is at risk without this modest sales tax measure," said Caltrain board member Jeannie Bruins.

Bruins added that getting rid of Caltrain would "dump four lanes of traffic" onto Highway 101.

According to Caltrain, its ridership dropped 97 percent in April. Its total ridership in April plummeted from 1.59 million in 2019 to 38,858 this year. The transit agency relied on passenger fares for 70 percent of its budget.

The 156-year-old Caltrain commuter railroad reported that its June ridership increased from 1,500 per day to 3,200 per day.

Longtime riders on Wednesday said losing Caltrain would create a major disruption in their lives.

"It would be damn-near impossible to see my daughter," said Adrian Olage, a San Jose resident who uses Caltrain -- among other public transit -- to meet with his daughter in Madera.

Monica Mallon, a frequent Caltrain rider and transportation advocate, called the potential loss "devastating."

"I don't know if I would be able to afford to live in this area any more," she said.

Another challenge is determining which agency will manage Caltrain and potential new tax revenue sources. It's currently run by SamTrans in San Mateo County and some officials say that agency has mismanaged funds and lacks accountability in its governance.

A new plan unveiled Tuesday would direct revenue from the proposed tax measure into an escrow account controlled by the three-county Joint Powers Board that manages the Peninsula rail system, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Liccardo said Santa Clara and San Francisco counties provide the majority of annual funding to Caltrain, but SamTrans officials have no accountability to those taxpayers.

"It is intolerable for my city's and county's taxpayers to be told to simply ship $56 million annually to SamTrans staff, but not to worry our pretty little heads about longstanding inequities of governance when staff recommends how and where to spend that money," Liccardo wrote in a Medium post. "Nearly 3 million people who live outside of San Mateo County's borders pay taxes to support a highly staff-controlled agency without any elected representatives capable of hiring or firing that senior staff."

This story originally appeared on San Jose Spotlight. Republished with permission.