Caltrain governance discussions continue following a productive but still ongoing recommendation proposal, with issues around SamTrans’ right-of-way repayments and ensuring equity for San Francisco and Santa Clara counties still to be hammered out.

“I think it was probably the most productive meeting that we’ve had yet, but the problem is we are still a long way away from any deal that would be fair to the SamTrans organization and the taxpayers of San Mateo County,” said Charles Stone, Caltrain and SamTrans board member, and also a Belmont councilmember.

While the Jan. 6 Caltrain board meeting addressed and analyzed changes to governance and finding solutions, the board ultimately had too many undecided issues to approve or agree to for a final governance recommendation. The Caltrain board for four hours discussed the role of SamTrans as the managing agency of Caltrain, how to reimburse SamTrans and how to improve an untenable management situation for San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

The oversight role of SamTrans, known as the San Mateo County Transit District, has concerned the board because of its control over issues of hiring and firing staff, oversight, and role as the managing agency. Caltrain board members from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are pushing for change to the three-county train system’s governance structure to ensure both counties are more involved in decision-making, staffing and oversight authority. SamTrans has generally opposed the broad governance changes suggested but is working toward a compromise, provided it’s compensated financially.

SamTrans’ authority comes because it serves as the managing agency of Caltrain, giving it control over staffing and ultimately hiring and firing the Caltrain executive director. A managing agency is responsible for carrying out policy decisions. San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties formed the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority and purchased the railroad right of way for Caltrain in 1991, using state funds and money advanced by SamTrans. The agreement and subsequent amendments designated SamTrans as the managing agency for as long as it decided. The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, or JPB, owns and operates Caltrain and is known as the Caltrain board. The JPB has nine total representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The Caltrain board this past year has been developing a governance change recommendation to address hiring and firing of the executive director, staffing and the right-of-way repayment to SamTrans, with monthly meetings to try and reach consensus. SamTrans wants repayment for its initial right-of-way investments and has calculated the balance of $19.8 million. Under the negotiated terms, the $19.8 million must be repaid 12 months after the agreement between the JPB and SamTrans, with $200,000 repaid by San Francisco and $19.6 million by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, a Bay Area regional agency responsible for transportation financing and coordination created by the state in 1970. However, MTC Executive Director Therese McMillan said in a Jan. 4 letter to Caltrain it was important to acknowledge there could be an intersection of right-of-way repayment funding and Caltrain electrification project funding, and it may have to come from similar sources. The Caltrain electrification project would electrify train service from San Francisco to San Jose. The project is currently ongoing, with funding for project completion still undetermined. McMillan said potential funding sources are limited with significant transportation funding demands across the Bay Area.

Board Member Jeff Gee, also a SamTrans Director and Redwood City councilmember, wanted to ensure the right-of-way repayment from MTC to SamTrans was a meaningful financial payment and not an accounting entry. He expressed concern about strings attached to the compensation related to the Caltrain electrification project.

“I want to make clear on behalf of the San Mateo County taxpayers. They are not interested in a journal entry,” Gee said.

Stone agreed that SamTrans must be repaid the money it is owed separate from electrification funds. He argued the issue was not about governance and more about renegotiating agreements entered into by the parties many years ago.

“There are still a lot of gaps to bridge. I continue to remain hopeful there is a path that gets the folks from San Francisco and Santa Clara some of what they want,” Stone said.

Board Member Steve Heminger said SamTrans is owed money for right-of-way purchases. However, he noted San Francisco and Santa Clara counties must participate in running the railroad in a meaningful way, like having authority to hire and fire the executive director. The new reality was that taxpayers from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties were paying for substantial portions of railroad operations. He said a potential agreement was on the table, provided everyone compromised.

“To return to the problem statement here, we’ve got a set of agreements that in a cumulative effect are leading to at least two of the three members of this partnership thinking they are not getting a fair shake,” Heminger said.

Board Member Shamann Walton said San Francisco residents were frustrated about not having equitable decision-making authority.

“It doesn’t go over well that in San Francisco, we are obligated to contracts we didn’t enter into, and we don’t have any say over the management of the rail system,” Walton said.

Chair Dev Davis noted the changed circumstances make the current situation with SamTrans authority untenable for two counties.

“The issue is the contract is no longer working as intended for some of the parties because the issues on the ground have changed,” Davis said.

The board will hold another special meeting later in January to discuss the issue before the regular February meeting.

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