It’s County vs. County in Caltrain ‘Power Struggle’

As the rail agency rethinks its governance structure, San Mateo County insists on being repaid for its long-held debts.

Government meetings are supposed to be orderly, predictable, and, for normal people, boring. 

A recent meeting of the Caltrain Joint Powers Authority Board was anything but. 

As the transit agency continues to study potential reforms to its governance structure, board members from San Mateo County are putting their foot down and demanding San Francisco and Santa Clara counties pay back decades-old debts. The issue came to a head at a special meeting June 25, where the board was meant to discuss governance. Instead, representatives from Santa Clara County informed the board they could not participate for fear of potential litigation by San Mateo County, and San Francisco’s representatives abruptly logged off, preventing the planned business of the meeting from going forward. For transit activists, it was déjà vu all over again, recalling the nail-biter effort to get Caltrain’s permanent funding measure, RR, on the ballot last year.

The current drama at Caltrain is just an opening act for more existential questions, including whether the agency’s operations should be decoupled from SamTrans, San Mateo County’s transit agency, and, looking further into the future, whether Caltrain should become part of BART or a new regional rail agency. Meanwhile, the railroad has big plans to increase service and extend tracks into downtown San Francisco, adding another layer to the debate about how Caltrain should be run. 

With these questions far from resolved, the events of recent weeks highlight the challenges that come with reforming transit governance in the Bay Area, or, for that matter, leaving governance as is. 

What Happened?

The origins of the aborted meeting can be traced back to the previous days, and before that, to previous decades. 

On June 22, the San Mateo County Transit District, SamTrans’ governing body, passed a resolution calling on staff to “seek a written response” from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties “as to what efforts [they have] made and will make to ensure that the District is fully and properly reimbursed” for decades-old debts. The resolution authorizes SamTrans staff to “take any actions necessary to implement the intent of this resolution.” The deliberations took place in a closed-door meeting, authorized under the auspices of “anticipated litigation,” one of the few avenues that legally allow for closed-door meetings. 

That meeting’s ostensible purpose, and the strong wording of SamTrans’ resolution, were enough to put the other member counties of the Caltrain board on defense. At the Caltrain board’s special governance meeting three days later, Board Chair Dev Davis stated she and her fellow directors from Santa Clara County had been advised by their lawyers not to participate in the meeting “in light of potential litigation.” 

From there, the meeting unravelled completely. With the two other directors from Santa Clara County not present, as well as Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton of San Francisco, Director Steve Heminger of San Francisco said he did not wish to proceed with so few board members. After making an unsuccessful motion to adjourn the meeting, he and Director Monique Zmuda of San Francisco then exited the Zoom meeting, at which point there were too few directors to proceed. 

In the aftermath, accusations flew about who was at fault for stopping this important meeting, which is part of a process the board agreed to during the contentious negotiations that ultimately brought Measure RR to the ballot. At that time, board members from San Francisco and Santa Clara demanded the long-term funding measure be coupled with an effort to study how the railroad is governed and operated, arguing that under the current system where SamTrans serves as Caltrain’s managing agency, their counties lack oversight. In exchange, San Mateo County inserted language into the resolution authorizing the ballot measure that the governance process must also address the question of debts owed. 

“There’s this mis-framing that somehow has been interpreted as San Mateo County is withdrawing from the governance process,” Belmont Mayor and Caltrain board member Charles Stone says. On the contrary, at the meeting, Stone says, “All three San Mateo County representatives were present, willing to go forward, wanting to do the important business of the public. It was representatives from other counties that made sure that couldn’t happen.”

Walton interpreted matters differently. “I really don’t know what’s going to come of the governance process,” he says. “It just makes it harder to work with a county that is trying to come at you with litigation.”

Regarding potential legal action, Stone says, “I can’t comment on what happened in closed session, or the possibility of litigation. I will simply say that this, to me, seems like an extraordinarily reasonable ask by partners that gave their word to do something.”

Walton says he thinks San Mateo County’s actions are less about the debt repayment and more about slowing down the governance process. “I think they are trying to disrupt the governance because they don’t want to give up the operations control over the rail system. They don’t want the equity to happen.”

In fact, these two issues — debt repayment and who controls operations of the railroad — are closely connected, and the Caltrain Board of Directors aren’t on the same page about either issue.  

How Much is Owed? 

The debts in question date back to 1991 when San Mateo County bought the Caltrain right-of-way, essentially, the rails that the train runs on, from a private company. At the time, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties’ combined contribution was $82 million. That money went completely unpaid until 2008, when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) brokered a deal where San Mateo County would receive a lesser sum, $53 million, in exchange for becoming the managing agency of the railroad “unless and until it no longer chooses to do so,” according to the resolution language. 

Of that $53 million, Santa Clara was to pay about $8 million, San Francisco $2 million, and the rest was to be covered by the MTC itself, according to Heminger, who was executive director of the MTC at the time. The contributions from the two counties have been nearly completely paid off, Heminger says, although San Francisco still owes around $200,000. The MTC still owes about $20 million. 

But Heminger and other Caltrain board members say they don’t know how much money San Mateo is asking for. “If SamTrans wants resolution of the right-of-way issue, which I believe they do, and I believe their partners do, too, I think SamTrans ought to tell us what they want,” Heminger says. Stone says he can’t provide the exact dollar figure San Mateo is seeking for legal reasons. 

The June 22 SamTrans resolution claims “to this date neither San Francisco nor VTA [Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority] has made any investment to offset the District’s investment in the Caltrain Corridor” and that San Mateo County has been “largely unreimbursed” for its initial outlay. Adding to the confusion, an op-ed in the Mercury News by former Caltrain board member and state Sen. Jerry Hill argues San Mateo County still needs to be paid $150 million — the initial $82 million plus interest. Those debts, Hill argues, need to be resolved before the board can proceed with the governance process, the very existence of which ruffles feathers in the San Mateo camp. 

Define ‘Equitable’

Even as some directors from San Francisco and Santa Clara call for change to Caltrain’s management and governance, they concede SamTrans has done a pretty good job running Caltrain over the past several years. Ridership more than tripled since SamTrans took over operations in 1991, and the line is now the most cost-effective commuter railroad in the nation by passenger mile. 

“The rail system, quite frankly, has been doing a good job, but when you bring Measure RR into effect and the fact that us and Santa Clara County are going to be responsible for over 70 percent of the revenue, now we’re at a point where we need to have equity in decision making,” Walton says. Right now, SamTrans is “the sole decision maker when it comes to the CEO. And what happens if let’s say the CEO was to run all the trains into a wall or take all the resources. We in Santa Clara and San Francisco counties have no say in what the consequences would be.”

Stone responds that “there is a very equitably designed board with three votes from each of the three counties that the rail line runs through. That is the board that makes policy, and then the policy is effectuated by [SamTrans] staff. To my knowledge, there’s never been a legitimate instance — at least while I’ve been on the board — of staff not following the board’s direction.” He also says the board has made moves to assuage some of Walton’s concerns, like hiring a separate legal team for Caltrain.

While Stone maintains he’s still “listening with an open mind,” he says “the idea that Caltrain would just become a completely independent agency with its own full staff, and we just build that from the ground up… would, in my opinion, not be feasible.” The board is still waiting for a cost estimate for that governance concept, but Stone believes the price will be “astronomically high.”  

Heminger strikes a more diplomatic tone. “The alternative of having a separate standalone transit district has the advantage of being much more accountable and clearer in terms of lines of authority, but it’s not as efficient as the operation we have now, because we’ll have to go out and hire an entirely new staff to run a new agency,” he says. “The trade off we’ve got to deal with is this question of accountability versus efficiency.” 

Whatever the board decides, making substantive change will be difficult. Relieving SamTrans of its role as Caltrain’s managing agency would require a unanimous vote of the transportation agencies of all three member counties, or state legislation. 

The Bigger Picture

Parallel to the governance debate happening within Caltrain, which is supposed to be resolved by the end of the year, there’s a larger, longer-term discussion happening in the Bay Area about transit regionalism. This summer, the MTC will release the results of its Fare Integration Study, as well as preliminary results from its Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, which could produce recommendations that inform a two-year bill by Assemblymember David Chiu, known as the Seamless Transit Act. Yet another MTC study is set to look at regional rail in the Bay Area, as BART and Capitol Corridor begin outreach on a massive regional rail plan called Link21.

Several polls have indicated that making transit more of a regional affair is very popular, at least in theory. One recent poll found more than 80 percent of Bay Area voters favored merging BART and Caltrain into a single agency. 

Those polls are too hypothetical to be accurate, Stone says, adding that transit agencies can coordinate without merging into one. “BART and Caltrain are already coordinating better than they have in the past, and I think there are further synergies we can unlock. But I can tell you that I’ve never talked directly to someone I know who rides Caltrain who thinks it’s a good idea that BART take over Caltrain.” Merging the two agency’s pension systems is “just one obstacle that is almost insurmountable,” he says. 

Walton has more positive views of a potential BART-Caltrain merger, or another regional rail scheme. “I think that those are ideas that should be explored,” he says. “If there’s a way to create an entity that is going to be best for ridership across the Bay Area and surrounding regions, I’m definitely supportive of that.”

Heminger stresses Caltrain’s current governance process needs to proceed with these larger discussions in mind. “We’ve got to make sure that if we land on a solution, that that solution doesn’t preclude moving toward a more regionalized approach for rail service in the Bay Area in the future.” 

Some transit activists think the Caltrain governance debate misses the bigger picture.

For Adina Levin, leader of the advocacy group Friends of Caltrain, spending time focusing on accountability or debt repayment neglects the needs of the rider. Neither side has said, “‘Here’s some public purpose that is being underserved, and here are some alternatives that would serve the public interest better,’” Levin says. “It appears more like a power struggle than a discussion about how to govern an important piece of the region’s transit infrastructure for the benefit of the public.”   

Ian Griffiths, director of the group Seamless Bay Area that advocates for a regional transit system, says the Caltrain saga of the last two weeks “just reinforces my view that the government structure is inadequate.” Because the Caltrain board’s representatives come directly from the transit agencies of the three counties, they’re part of each county’s “political machinery” in a way that, say, BART board members, whose districts cross county lines, are not. 

Griffiths also thinks the events of the last couple weeks reflect a lack of “professional expertise” in the governance of the railroad. “If there was more expertise and less politics involved, this showdown would not have happened.” 

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