SFMTA board vote may knock Cal­train off the rails.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Rachel Swan

Af­ter a long board meet­ing Tues­day night, two San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sors — Shamann Wal­ton and Aaron Pe­skin — posted a Twit­ter selfie with a toy train, brag­ging that they had ap­proved a Novem­ber sales tax mea­sure to save Cal­train.

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, the mea­sure ap­peared to be dead, and the Penin­sula rail sys­tem in se­vere dan­ger of shut­ting down.

The Board of Direc­tors for the San Fran­cisco Mu­nic­i­pal Trans­porta­tion Agency voted against San Fran­cisco’s ver­sion of the 1⁄8-­cent sales tax dur­ing a spe­cial meet­ing Fri­day.

To get on the Novem­ber bal­lot, the sales tax mea­sure needs ap­proval from four tran­sit boards and three county boards of su­per­vi­sors by Aug. 7. San Fran­cisco has stood firm on its de­mand to change Cal­train’s gov­er­nance struc­ture, a de­mand that San Ma­teo County of­fi­cials say is il­le­gal.

Santa Clara County of­fi­cials, mean­while, have largely stayed out of the fray, though San Jose Mayor Sam Lic­cardo ex­pressed sup­port for the gov­er­nance changes and signed a joint state­ment with San Fran­cisco Mayor Lon­don Breed and other of­fi­cials, urg­ing San Ma­teo County to give


San Fran­cisco’s pro­posal dif­fered from a more straight­for­ward mea­sure in­tro­duced in San Ma­teo County, in that it would force Cal­train to make gov­er­nance changes to give San Fran­cisco and Santa Clara coun­ties more con­trol over its man­age­ment.

Since the SFMTA is down to four board direc­tors — a side ef­fect of the su­per­vi­sors re­ject­ing or post­pon­ing re­cent nom­i­na­tions by Mayor Lon­don Breed — it only took one, Ch­eryl Brinkman, to strike the mea­sure down.

“It cer­tainly would be eas­ier for me to hold my nose and vote yes, but I can­not,” Brinkman said, not­ing that the con­di­tions San Fran­cisco added made the mea­sure “un­winnable” be­cause it might con­fuse or dis­suade vot­ers, and would lose sup­port from a pow­er­ful coali­tion of busi­ness lead­ers and tran­sit ac­tivists. The mea­sure needs to pass by a two­thirds thresh­old of vot­ers in three coun­ties, so it can’t af­ford to lose any en­dorse­ments.

Were San Fran­cisco’s ver­sion to pass, the mea­sure would be vul­ner­a­ble to law­suits: San Ma­teo County Coun­sel John Beiers said in a le­gal opin­ion that it would vi­o­late a 2017 state law that en­abled the three coun­ties to place it on the bal­lot.

In an in­ter­view Fri­day, Cal­train board mem­ber Charles Stone, who is also a city coun­cil­man in Bel­mont, seemed ex­as­per­ated. He said the like­li­hood of Cal­train stop­ping ser­vice is now “pretty high.”

“This is not a threat, this is not a joke,” Stone said. “This is not a game of chicken, although some of­fi­cials in Santa Clara County and San Fran­cisco seem to think it is.”

Cal­train of­fi­cials be­gan dis­cussing the Novem­ber sales tax long be­fore the COVID­19 pan­demic. At the time, they en­vi­sioned the tax as a means to beef up ser­vice, par­tic­u­larly out­side of rush hour. The agency was thriv­ing with 65,000 rid­ers each week­day whose fares cov­ered 70% of the sys­tem’s op­er­at­ing costs. Its brass were pur­su­ing a long­range ser­vice vi­sion to co­in­cide with new de­vel­op­ment along El Camino Real and Google’s forth­com­ing mega­cam­pus at Diri­don Sta­tion in San Jose.

But the sys­tem lost 95% of its rid­ers when COVID­19 swept into the re­gion, and it has stum­bled along with nearempty trains for months. Sup­port­ers of the tax changed their cam­paign mes­sage and be­gan pitch­ing it as a life­line. Without it, of­fi­cials said, the rail sys­tem might go dark.

While tran­sit ad­vo­cates and Penin­sula politi­cians lob­bied for the tax mea­sure, lead­ers in San Fran­cisco and Santa Clara coun­ties saw an op­por­tu­nity to press for gov­er­nance re­form they’d wanted for a long time. The San Ma­teo County Tran­sit Dis­trict op­er­ates Cal­train on be­half of a three­county Joint Pow­ers Board, an ar­range­ment that’s been in place since SamTrans pur­chased the rail­road rightof­way in 1991. Although San Fran­cisco and Santa Clara coun­ties col­lec­tively chip in $35.8 million each year for the sys­tem’s cap­i­tal and op­er­at­ing costs, they don’t help pick the CEO.

Un­der the tax mea­sure the San Fran­cisco Board of Su­per­vi­sors ap­proved Tues­day, the es­ti­mated $108 million gen­er­ated by the tax each year would be de­posited in an es­crow ac­count con­trolled by the Joint Pow­ers Board. The board would re­lease $40 million to Cal­train in the first year of the tax, and San Fran­cisco and Santa Clara coun­ties would end their an­nual con­tri­bu­tion. The rest of the tax money would sit un­til the three coun­ties ham­mer out a deal over man­age­ment of the sys­tem.

The plan set a dead­line of Sept. 30, 2021 for the Joint Pow­ers Board to agree on a “gov­er­nance so­lu­tion” for Cal­train. If they don't reach a so­lu­tion, and Cal­train re­ceives no more fed­eral stim­u­lus money, the board could dis­pense up to $40 million in 2022.

Of­fi­cials in San Ma­teo County flatly re­jected the pro­posal, and for weeks the lead­ers from all three coun­ties waged a bat­tle on Twit­ter. Tran­sit ac­tivists and po­lit­i­cal ob­servers chimed in, some ac­cus­ing the su­per­vi­sors of el­e­vat­ing petty pol­i­tics over re­gional tran­sit. Oth­ers dis­par­age Cal­train, say­ing that tax­pay­ers shouldn’t have to shell out more for a train that serves so many affluent tech work­ers.

Those ar­gu­ments spilled into Tues­day’s board meet­ing in San Fran­cisco, dur­ing which sev­eral su­per­vi­sors crit­i­cized Cal­train for serv­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley com­muters — a de­mo­graphic they said was less di­verse than the pop­u­la­tion that rides Muni buses in San Fran­cisco. Wal­ton, who serves on the Cal­train board and helped write the al­ter­na­tive tax mea­sure, ac­cused Cal­train — without ev­i­dence — of us­ing funds to sub­si­dize SamTrans, and said that without gov­er­nance re­form, the “good ol’ boy poli­cies and prac­tice” would con­tinue.

Still, Pe­skin in­sisted Fri­day that “all is not lost,” be­cause the SFMTA had left open the pos­si­bil­ity of hold­ing an­other spe­cial meet­ing next week. If six boards pass the re­vised mea­sure next week, it will go to vot­ers in Novem­ber.

“This is not a game of chicken, although some of­fi­cials in Santa Clara County and San Fran­cisco seem to think it is.”

Charles Stone, Cal­train board mem­ber

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

A wo­man walks past an en­trance of the Cal­train Sta­tion at King and Fourth streets in San Fran­cisco.

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