Silicon Valley transit agency publicizes dispute over alleged debt
A Caltrain engine at Diridon Station is pictured in this file photo.

Two Bay Area transit agencies disagree on whether one owes the other money—and local officials say the dispute could be handled better.

“The more I read about it, this is clearly a power play,” said Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users. “They’re going to have to work something out.”

The San Mateo County Transit District—often known as SamTrans—recently alleged that VTA and the city and county of San Francisco owe money for an investment made in 1991.

SamTrans paid $82 million to purchase the right to use railroad tracks for Caltrain and the properties around the tracks, according to Charles Stone, chair of SamTrans’ Board of Directors.

Stone said the purchase kickstarted the takeover of the rail line by the Joint Powers Board, comprised of an equal number of members from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to act as Caltrain’s governing body.

San Mateo County took responsibility for the Caltrain properties and right-of-way at a time when the other agencies were unwilling, or unable, to do so, Stone said.

“San Mateo County stepped up because we were able to do it and our leaders wanted to do it, and there was an agreement that we would be repaid that money,” Stone said.

The SamTrans board held a special meeting last week where they authorized Carter Mau, acting general manager, to contact VTA and San Francisco about the alleged debt.

VTA officials told San José Spotlight that the agency settled on a repayment amount years ago, resulting in an $8 million payout to SamTrans in October 2008. VTA said it does not owe any money to SamTrans.

But Stone says that repayment agreement came with certain conditions he’s not sure VTA met.

“In that agreement, the parties agreed to use best efforts to get the San Mateo County Transit District repaid,” Stone said. “So far, it’s been lip service… We’d like to know, what did you do to live up to your word?”

When asked why there is a disagreement about the alleged debt, VTA officials said “There is no disagreement on our part.”

When asked why SamTrans is seeking reimbursement from VTA at this time—particularly in light of last month’s mass shooting and VTA’s anticipation of net losses over the next decade—Stone said SamTrans is not seeking immediate reimbursement.

“We haven’t even asked to be repaid, we asked, ‘what efforts have you made for us to be repaid?'” Stone said. “SamTrans stepped up like no other bus agency to run routes for VTA… This has to do with addressing amounts that were originally owed 30 years ago.”

Mau also sent a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees transit agencies across the Bay Area’s nine counties. MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said the organization tried to mediate the dispute in the past, but does not plan to do so this time around.

“This dispute is between them,” Rentschler said. “The commission is fully aware of these matters… We have sought to address them in the past. We’ll just see what happens in the future. We just don’t know.”

San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis, chair of the Joint Powers Board, said SamTrans’ publishing of a news release calling out the other transit agencies was unexpected.

“The SamTrans board took an action in closed session that we were not anticipating, and that was frankly outside of the governance process,” Davis said, adding that the dispute was supposed to be settled during discussions on restructuring Caltrain’s governance and administration.

“All the parties have agreed that this matter has not been settled, and was intended to be settled as part of the governance discussion,” Davis said. “The VTA legal counsel is reviewing the letter and has to determine where to go from there.”

VTA board chair Glenn Hendricks sent Davis a letter on Friday requesting that the Joint Powers Board’s special meeting that day be postponed. Hendricks said SamTrans’ board meeting last week was held under an exemption for the initiation of litigation—suggesting that SamTrans could file suit against VTA.

“Since SamTrans’ action raises potential legal issues, VTA counsel advises against the participation of VTA representatives at this meeting until VTA has had the opportunity to evaluate how this will impact the governance process,” Hendricks wrote.

VTA board chair Glenn Hendricks sent San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis a letter urging her to postpone the Joint Powers Board meeting on Friday, June 25. Image courtesy of SamTrans.

Davis said she’s disappointed that SamTrans took the matter to the press, and that they could have brought up the issue during a regular meeting between general managers.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who sits on VTA’s board, said conflicts arise from time to time between public agencies, but they’re usually settled in private.

“Usually it’s worked out at the staff level… in very rare situations, it might make it up to the board level,” Jones said. “It’s kind of surprising that SamTrans would make this an issue without going through the proper channel or process.”

Jones said VTA is a good partner to SamTrans and questioned why the transportation agency declined to work things out privately.

“Of course, there’s always three sides to every story: Your side, my side and the truth,” Jones said. “It’s easier and less contentious if people can work things out as opposed to going to the press first.”

The Joint Powers Board’s next meeting on Caltrain’s governance is Aug. 20, during which Davis hopes to discuss the matter further.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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