Baker: Measure RR is the right move to rescue Caltrain
A Caltrain is pictured in this file photo.

Our country is divided over a lot of issues these days. Without much to agree on, it’s nice to find an issue that has near universal support among our elected officials across the Bay Area. It seems that we can all agree that our community is better off with Caltrain than without it.

It’s a stark choice but that’s what we’re faced with — a future where Caltrain remains a thriving part of the transportation infrastructure in the Bay Area or one where Caltrain may have to shut down, at least temporarily and we’re left without a key backbone of Bay Area transit.

Measure RR, the ⅛ cent sales tax on the November ballot, is essential to rescuing Caltrain and ensuring it has a stable future in our community. Like many of our local industries, Caltrain has been decimated by the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rail service relies on passenger fares for 70% of its revenue and ridership is down nearly 95% as many people work from home. The pandemic won’t last forever and it’s our responsibility to make sure that Caltrain isn’t another casualty of this devastating crisis.

Statistics show those most hurt by the financial impacts of the pandemic are more likely to rely on transit. This hardship is one of the key reasons for the measure — we have to keep the system running for essential workers and prepare it for future events like this. This is a necessary investment in future stability.

Measure RR is key to helping Caltrain survive the pandemic shutdown but it wasn’t a last-minute idea thrown together when the pandemic struck.

Caltrain has long understood that it needs a permanent source of operating funds to ensure it can have a stable future through any kind of downturn. The Caltrain Board considered all possible options and Measure RR was the one that provided a stable, flexible source of operating funds and money to help Caltrain expand with more frequent trains to meet demand for their service.

Measure RR is the right choice for Caltrain and the benefits are clear. Estimates indicate projects funded by Measure RR will support more than 16,000 good-paying jobs in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. That’s just the type of economic boost the Bay Area needs right now to reduce unemployment and return to a sense of normalcy.

Critics suggest Caltrain’s riders are all wealthy tech workers and the rail service shouldn’t rely on tax dollars to run their operations. The reality is 40% of Caltrain’s riders make under $100,000 a year, with nearly half of those riders making below $50,000.

And Measure RR is just what we need to help Caltrain serve more low-income riders well into the future. Caltrain is piloting a 50% fare discount for low-income riders now, and Measure RR will provide the resources needed to make the discount permanent. That’s in addition to the other proposals in Caltrain’s recently adopted equity framework like adding more frequent off-peak service and expanding connections with other types of public transportation.

Any suggestion that Measure RR doesn’t hold Caltrain accountable to the public for these funds is just wrong. A mandatory independent citizens’ oversight committee is written into the text of the measure itself to ensure all funds are spent as promised. That committee is required to conduct an independent audit, issue an annual report and hold a public hearing to increase transparency.

Measure RR is a fair, accountable and necessary proposal to save Caltrain, but you don’t just have to take my word for it. More than 100 current and former elected officials across three counties have endorsed Measure RR. The measure is supported by a broad coalition of equity advocates who understand that shutting down Caltrain would be the most regressive outcome possible.

Caltrain is a modern public transportation solution for a modern problem. Electrification already is scheduled to make Caltrain faster and cleaner. Measure RR will provide the critical funds to operate those new electric trains, taking even more polluting cars off our roads and powering the Bay Area toward a full economic recovery.

Jason Baker is vice president of transportation for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and former mayor of Campbell. 

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