Caltrain held its final governance special meeting to discuss its role in Bay Area regional governance, with the board keen on involvement in future regional discussions and hearing from staff about self-governance recommendations Nov. 4.

“If you are not at the table for the discussion, you become the meal. If there is going to be a regional discussion about changing governance models, structures, relationships and funding decisions and how funding decisions are being made, I think it’s absolutely critical and important that Caltrain be involved and perceived by all the other parties as a major player at the table,” Director Glenn Hendricks said.

Regional governance refers to transit agencies in the nine Bay Area counties organizing and integrating transit systems, a topic discussed for years. Caltrain and other regional transit agencies face similar structural issues that need to be tackled together, like transit infrastructure, funding and ridership concerns.

At its Oct. 22 meeting, the board indicated its desire to be involved with all discussions related to regional governance and proactively involved in ensuring Caltrain issues and projects are taken into consideration. The October special meeting is one of six meetings in 2021 to provide recommendations on self-governance by December. Caltrain governance and the role of SamTrans have been a long-running issue at the board level. SamTrans, known as the San Mateo County Transit District, currently serves as the managing agency of Caltrain, with the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, owning and operating Caltrain. The sixth meeting Friday was designed to give staff direction on important issues for regional governance discussions in the future.

Chair Dev Davis, who also serves as a councilmember in San Jose, emphasized the need to ensure Caltrain was involved in discussions that would affect Caltrain’s future. She agreed with Director Steve Heminger on working collaboratively with regional rail agencies given similar issues and goals. She suggested Caltrain and BART schedules, fares and branding be aligned as an achievable goal and a starting place. However, Davis wanted to avoid local service coming at the expense of regional service and traveling.

“These are happening whether we are a part of them or not,” Davis said.

Director Jeff Gee, also a SamTrans director, concurred that regional rail agencies should all discuss issues and goals. He wanted any regional discussions to include goals to address more ridership, financial stability and support for Caltrain’s 2040 Service Vision plan to prepare for regional growth along the Caltrain corridor.

“There should be some benefits of being part of the larger body to achieve more aspirational outcomes. It shouldn’t take away from what we are trying to do and the service we are trying to provide or make it even harder to be finically successful,” Gee said.

Director Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor, was concerned about Caltrain’s capacity to balance regional discussions and its own issues like electrification, ridership decline and internal governance issues. However, he wanted Caltrain to be involved in all future talks.

“It really does raise the question of our capacity to engage in all the regional discussions, and we may need more staff to do that,” Pine said.

Caltrain self-governance discussions will occur at the Nov. 4 Caltrain regular meeting. Acting Caltrain Executive Director Michelle Bouchard plans to bring back a straw proposal on self-directed governance. Based on discussions over the last several weeks with staff and other member agencies, Bouchard is positive about the direction of the talks. She plans to bring a recommendation on how governance and management of Caltrain can evolve, approach to addressing the right of way repayments to SamTrans for earlier investments in Caltrain, and timeline implementation in the months to follow.

“I am very hopeful, and I believe we are making substantial progress in drafting a governance approach or proposal that addresses what we heard to be the range of issues and concerns that have been articulated by the board and other stakeholders over the last several months,” Bouchard said.

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