The Caltrain Board of Directors unanimously voted to place a 1/8 cent sales tax on the November 3, 2020 ballot. The measure would provide Caltrain with a long-sought dedicated revenue source, preserving service that thousands of riders continue to depend on during the pandemic, and ensuring that the system will have the resources it needs to maintain and expand operations following the launch of electrified service in 2022. Funds from the measure would also be invested in a set of equity policies to make the system more affordable and accessible to communities throughout the corridor.
The rail agency had received more than 70% of its funding from fare box revenue, but this has been severely reduced in recent months due to ridership decline from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Despite not having a dedicated funding source, the system has become the seventh largest commuter railroad in the country, the largest carrier of bikes of any American transit system, as well as nation’s most efficient railroad. The pandemic has made it clear that Caltrain will require a more diverse set of revenues to survive the impacts of the pandemic and to grow to meet the region’s demands. Caltrain’s dependence on fare revenue is not a reliable means of supporting a system of Caltrain’s size and importance. Prior to the pandemic, Caltrain’s average weekday ridership was 65,000 passengers. Since the shelter-in-place orders were issued, Caltrain ridership has dipped by 95%.
Currently, Caltrain service is supported by Federal pandemic relief funding provided by the CARES Act, but those funds are not expected to last through the end of the year. Without new sources of funding, or a significant increase in ridership Caltrain would need to reduce or suspend service altogether.
Recent public opinion research show that the ballot measure could be approved by voters if supported by a broad coalition leading up to the November election. The measure requires approval from two-thirds of voters in order to pass. A June 2020 poll of likely voters showed that nearly two-thirds of voters support the measure and that support increases to above 70% when voters are made aware of the benefits that would be funded by the revenues.
“Caltrain provides a critical service that thousands of riders depend on and will be vital to the recovery of our economy,” said Board Chair Dave Pine. “Voters will have the opportunity to keep the service strong both during this time of crisis, and in the decades ahead.”
The tax measure was made possible by legislation (SB 797) passed by State Senator Jerry Hill. The legislation allows the Caltrain Board of Directors to place a measure on the ballot in all three counties, provided that the transportation agency and board of supervisors in each county concurs. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and San Francisco Board of Supervisors are expected to vote on the matter by the end of the week. All other boards have unanimously authorized the measure to be placed on the ballot.
While the tax measure would support Caltrain during the pandemic, it also will be instrumental for the expansion of electrified service. The Caltrain Electrification project has already been funded. This measure would allow for a massive expansion of service, with models showing that the service could accommodate up to 300% of its previous peak by 2040. Fully taking advantage of electrification will require greater investment in the system, by running more trains more frequently both during and outside of peak hours. Caltrain is also seeking to make the system more equitable through the Framework for Equity, Connectivity, Recovery and Growth, which will require further investment. Caltrain is currently participating in the MTC’s means-based fare program offering a 50% fare discount, and has been developing strategies to make the expanded service more available to all.
About Caltrain: Owned and operated by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, Caltrain provides commuter rail service from San Francisco to San Jose, with commute service to Gilroy. While the Joint Powers Board assumed operating responsibilities for the service in 1992, the railroad has provided the community with more than 150 years of continuous passenger service. Planning for the next 150 years of Peninsula rail service, Caltrain is on pace to electrify the corridor, reduce diesel emissions by 97 percent by 2040 and add more service to more stations.