Ackemann: Caltrain’s Doom Loop
A Caltrain is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Fuentes Schuster.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic we’ve all become “doomscrollers,” a phenomenon where people obsessively scroll social media for the latest bad news.

“Doom loops” are an economic phenomenon where every decision a business or organization makes to try and break a bad cycle serves to reinforce it. That’s the case with Caltrain. Basically, in trying to fix its problems, the Joint Powers Board of Directors, the governing board for Caltrain, seems continuously determined to make things worse.

The Santa Clara and San Francisco factions of Caltrain’s board don’t like the fact that the San Mateo County Transit District, SamTrans, is the managing agency. They are trying to use a proposed sales tax measure to force SamTrans into handing over more power to their counties.

In other words, they’re playing politics with a pandemic — and it’s not the first time they’ve used circumstances beyond Caltrain’s control against the commuter railroad.

During the Great Recession, Caltrain and SamTrans were in financial straits. One stop-gap solution being considered was to cobble together the funding to repay SamTrans for its investment in the rail corridor, which SamTrans then would use toward its portion of the funds each member has to contribute to Caltrain operations.

Ultimately, SamTrans gave up more than $40 million in interest and agreed to a finite $20 million corridor repayment in exchange for the right to manage Caltrain as long as it wanted (or at least until it was finally paid what the taxpayers of San Mateo County were owed).

What San Francisco and Santa Clara have negotiated may serve to push Caltrain further into that doom loop.

A month ago, representatives from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties rather suddenly pulled their support for a one-eighth sales tax hike and tried to bypass enabling legislation in favor of additional conditions that would force Caltrain into governance changes and hold hostage the money until such changes occurred.

The problem with this very late-to-the-party demand is that it goes against the original language in SB797, the enabling measure, and, could therefore, open the door to litigation.

The “clean” measure that will now go before voters doesn’t include the conditions proposed by those parties last month. The Caltrain board voted Thursday to impose those governance changes on itself separately.

I know these “imagine if” exercises are tedious but really, can you imagine accepting a job based on a certain salary, only to start work and be told that 60% of your salary will be held back each year until after you pass a satisfactory performance review? Those plans to save for a vacation, put a new roof on your house, or even handle an emergency that arises would have to be put on hold. But if you were only making 40% of your regular salary throughout the year, could you pay for health insurance? Childcare?

This is what San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are proposing in addition to new conditions requiring a supermajority vote to access the full funding provided through the measure and a path to governance changes that include appointing a separate CEO, independent counsel and auditor to oversee Caltrain.

On their face these may seem like reasonable requests but they have downstream impacts that need to be examined in the light of day before they can be adopted.

The San Mateo County members of the Joint Powers Board seem inclined to agree but only because they understand that without an infusion of new funding Caltrain will shutdown.

“We lost a month to these discussions,” said Joint Powers Board Director and Belmont City Council Vice Mayor Charles Stone told me. “That was a month we could have spent talking to voters about how the money would be used and why we need it. Instead, we’ve spent a month confusing voters.”

Caltrain has been nothing but disciplined about its message over the years. It needs a source of dedicated funding to allow it to grow to meet the needs of electrification, the only way to increase the number of trains on the rail. Now that crisis has been accelerated thanks to the pandemic.

Under the very best-case scenario, if the measure passes by a two-thirds majority, Caltrain would still need to seek a loan using the future revenue as collateral to continue to operate.

That loan would be predicated on the bank’s confidence the funding will be available to access — funding that could be tied up in litigation even under the most recent “clean” proposal making its way through the process.

Caltrain must be saved and San Mateo County, recognizing its intrinsic value, has always been willing to blink in these standoffs to keep it running.

Its riders, its employees and voters of these three counties deserve better than this last-minute political brinksmanship. Voters aren’t stupid. This is a naked political grab because Santa Clara County thinks power should be allocated based on the amount of money put into a system. But Santa Clara County isn’t being asked to give Caltrain this money, its voters are.

If the measure passes, it won’t be because the voters wanted to give Santa Clara County more power over Caltrain governance but because they want Caltrain to survive and thrive. Sure, Santa Clara County is huge and because there are more people, it will generate more of the sales tax revenue.

But regional systems are not meant to be governed on a county-by-county basis. The train could stop at Santa Clara County’s border, but it wouldn’t be very useful, would it? In Santa Clara County this is basically called “light rail,” and it hasn’t been a model of success. There’s a reason the state manages highways and freeways and not each of the local jurisdictions through which they operate.

I’m glad Caltrain’s board continues to look for solutions. I expect they will go forward in a more thoughtful and transparent way. Maybe they weren’t prepared for the scrutiny their moves last month would bring. After all, every agency is desperate in the throes of a pandemic. Maybe they thought this would slide under the radar.

But thanks to doomscrolling, we’re all paying a little more attention than we were pre-pandemic. Let’s be sure we aren’t placing conditions on the measure at the ballot box or on the board’s ultimate budget approval process such that we are pushing Caltrain further into that doom loop.

Let’s not “Save Caltrain” by keeping it on life support.

Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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