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Caltrain tax saga continues with supervisor passage amid county push-back

A ⅛-cent sales tax measure to fund Caltrain is still up in the air despite approval Tuesday by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

County supervisors from San Mateo and Santa Clara, along with their respected transit agencies, must still approve a measure that San Francisco officials revised with strings attached to how Caltrain is currently governed.

Under the current proposal by San Francisco officials, the approximately $108 million a year revenue generated from the tax measure would go into a special escrow and be disbursed by the Caltrain Joint Powers Board. In the first year of the tax, Caltrain would receive up to $40 million to help with operations and other costs.

County officials would then work to change Caltrain’s governing structure. The measure sets a final Dec. 31, 2022 deadline for county officials to come up with a viable solution. If no solution is identified by then, they must all agree to work with state legislators moving forward.

For weeks, discussion of the sales tax measure has boiled over with letters, emails and Twitter spats between county officials, transit agencies and Caltrain advocates.

Adding that reform discussions have been ongoing for 18 months, Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents The City on the Joint Powers Board, explained Tuesday night why it was important to include the reforms as part of the measure.

Walton said:

“These are key to ensuring that San Francisco and Santa Clara, which together provide by nearly 80 percent of the anticipated tax revenue from this measure, has an equal say at the table. This is critical, given the regressive nature of the tax, and the many important decisions that are before us at Caltrain.”

The San Mateo County Transit Board manages Caltrain as agreed upon by the three counties when SamTrans bought the railroad right-of-way in 1991.

While there is a Joint Powers Board with representatives from all three counties, Supervisor Aaron Peskin described it as a “paper board” with no real say, for example, over hundreds of acres of land managed by Caltrain.

Peskin said:

“No, this is not a power grab, but the best time to have this conversation is when money is on the table.”

Advocates and San Mateo County officials say the new revisions to the measure violate a 2017 state law, Senate Bill 797 introduced by state Sen. Jerry Hill, that paved the way for counties to place the sales tax measure on the ballot. The bill says all revenue from such a tax measure should go to Caltrain operations.

During public comment, many people called in to demand a “clean measure” that excludes the governance reforms.

Questioning the legality of the revised measure, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, who also chairs the Joint Powers Board, said in a tweet:

“Today, the SF Board of Supervisors approved an alternative sales tax measure that is illegal, unwinnable at the polls, and unworkable for Caltrain. Unless amended, this poison pill means the Caltrain sales tax is now dead which puts the railroad in great peril.”

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and SamTrans board have already voted on the original measure, but will need vote again to accept or reject the measure with the governance revisions.

County officials have not yet indicated they are on board with the measure, but have publicly opposed revisions made by San Francisco officials.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency plans to hold a special meeting Friday to discuss and vote on the measure while Santa Clara County officials indicated they will vote sometime next week.

SFMTA officials said if the tax measure makes it to the ballot and passes, it could free up $14 million in its budget that would have gone to Caltrain as part of the SFMTA’s annual contribution.

Walton hopes The City’s county partners join supporting the revised measure, saying:

“Now is the time for all partners to join together to fund Caltrain and create an equitable, accountable and transparent organization at Caltrain and strengthen the agency to be responsive and an outstanding real system that our region needs and deserves.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that if the measure does not make it on the ballot, Caltrain would need increased funding from annual contributions made by the three counties.

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