Santa Clara County approves Caltrain sales tax measure
Caltrain officials said ridership fell 97% in April due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Luke Johnson.

Caltrain moved one step closer to being saved when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a sales tax measure Tuesday to keep the rail running.

“I appreciate that folks weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves, keep talking and get us to ‘yes,'” said Board President Cindy Chavez.

However, to be placed on the ballot in November, the measure has to be approved by seven different boards: the three counties where Caltrain operates (San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara), their transit agencies and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.

Santa Clara County became the third board to approve the measure. The other two were San Mateo County and its transit agency SamTrans.

Decisions on this measure will be made by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Wednesday, Valley Transportation Authority and the Joint Powers Board Thursday and the final decision could come down to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Friday.

The deal, redrafted by lawmakers from the three counties over the weekend, would help fund Caltrain with a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase. It is projected to generate $100 million annually over the next 30 years. If the measure makes it on the November ballot, it needs two-thirds vote to pass.

“I must confess, I wish there was a better way to go about this funding than an additional tax, especially during a time like this,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman. “While I’m not endorsing it, I am going to be supporting option ‘A’ today… I could not imagine the loss of Caltrain.”

Last month, a dispute over governance put the rail at risk. SamTrans currently runs Caltrain, and is overseen by the Joint Powers Board, but Santa Clara and San Francisco leaders say they don’t have enough control of where funds are allocated.

To address these issues, Chavez said her board hired an independent attorney and auditor.

“We’ve been quite aware that some of the issues that have surfaced now are not new issues. They’ve been around for a long time,” said Supervisor Dave Cortese. “People have hope that there would have been some sort of housekeeping and clean up… So, it’s good that there’s commitment to doing that going forward.”

According to Caltrain, its ridership fell 97% in April due to the coronavirus pandemic. This put the rail in jeopardy since 70% of its budget depends on fares.

Lawmakers have been negotiating this sales tax for more than a year as a way to produce stable funding and improvements for Caltrain. However, the severe dip in ridership has made the sales tax critical to ensure the commuter train’s survival.

“We need this asset for climate protection. We need it for traffic mitigation,” Chavez said. “And I do think that the future of the asset will take a much deeper dive into how we make it something that is equitable and more affordable for people to ride.”

Contact Luke Johnson at [email protected] and follow @Scoop_Johnson on Twitter.

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