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Caltrain Sales Tax Likely Delayed To 2020

A three-county, eighth-cent sales tax would generate an estimated $100 million per year for Caltrain operations.

Caltrain’s staff, Board members, and the public have all expressed a preference to place the agency’s one-eighth cent sales tax on ballots in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties in 2020 instead of 2018, concerned that one year is too little time to answer unresolved questions and provide for an adequate public review. Governor Jerry Grown signed Senate Bill 797 on October 10, enabling the proposed sales tax, which must be approved by at least two-thirds of all the votes cast in all three counties on the issue.

“It’s clear that of the seven policy boards that are responsible for putting a measure like this on the ballot across all three counties, none of them are in favor of moving forward with having this on the ballot in 2018,” reported SamTrans Chief Communications Officer Seamus Murphy at the September 7 Caltrain Board of Directors meeting. “Concerns have been expressed for a variety of different reasons on moving too fast on this measure.”

Murphy explained that the planning for new long-term business plan that would answer key questions such as how to spend an estimated $100 million in new revenue every year, is about to begin, and won’t be finished until the end of 2018.  “How big does the Caltrain system need to be, how will we integrate with other rail operators in the region, what infrastructure is going to be required to achieve those service and integration goals, and how much will that infrastructure cost?” listed Murphy as questions that should be considered by voters.

Murphy also  expressed concern that ballots in 2018 are “too busy” with new taxes, including other measures in all three counties, and the $3 Regional Measure 3 bridge toll increase, planned for June 2018.

“I think it’s very evident that it could not happen in 2018,” said Caltrain Board Director and San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine directly, at the October 5 Board meeting. Pine also pointed to the upcoming business plan, calling it “fundamental”, and “a condition precedent to any targeted revenue measure for Caltrain.”

“August 10, 2018 is ten months from today,” noted Pine, referencing the deadline for placing measures on the November 6, 2018 ballot. “It will take many many many months to get through these six agencies… 2018 is just not a feasible option.”

“I really appreciate that this has finally come up after some 20 years of people asking for it,” said resident Jeff Carter, who insisted that the $100 million in expected new annual revenue “should actually be supplemental to the member agency contributions. I’m hoping there will be a set [Joint Powers Board] JPB member contribution from each of the three counties, in addition to the sales tax.”

“Santa Clara County will generate $50 million a year, that’s essentially half of what you’re looking for,” objected resident Roland Lebrun. “But the problem I have is that half of Santa Clara County doesn’t get Caltrain service… you’re going to have a problem with [the voters of] Santa Clara County.”

“I agree with you, Director Pine, putting this on the November 2018 ballot is, not to be considered,” added Lebrun.

“The Friends of Caltrain mission statement supports stable funding and the successful modernization of Caltrain in the context of an integrated transit system,” said Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin in support of the eighth-cent sales tax. “It sounds like there are significant complications with getting something on the ballot in 2018.”

Caltrain has not yet decided which ballot to place the three-county sales tax on, nor has issued any timeline for making a decision. But no one yet has supported an election in 2018 at the Board of Directors meetings.