A proposed sales tax to fund Caltrain operations is currently polling just below the required two-thirds threshold, leaving the agency’s board of directors cautiously optimistic about its chances of passing in 2020.
“This is your out-the-gate, if you do nothing, how does the public react to that and the results were in pretty good position as far as where you’d expect with no information. So that was a positive,” said Board Member Jeannie Bruins, also a Los Altos councilwoman.
Voters in the three counties served by Caltrain — San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara — will likely consider either a 1/8-cent or 1/4-cent sales tax, which would bring in $100 million a year or $200 million a year respectively to fund the railroad. Polling so far suggests the two rates are almost equally appealing to likely voters, who appear interested in the measure primarily insofar as it could reduce traffic congestion.
“I think [poll results] are somewhat encouraging,” said Board Member Charles Stone, also a Belmont councilman. “I’m pretty concerned that the numbers are softer than I’d like them to be and I think we have our work cut out for us.”
One of the numbers Stone may have had in mind is the percentage of likely voters who would support the Caltrain sales tax after receiving additional information about it. Without information, 63% of likely voters support the tax and, with information, that number jumps up to 66% or 67%.
Board Member Dave Pine found that number discouraging and noted that while initial polling for Measure W was on par with a Caltrain sales tax, the former became more popular after additional information was provided to likely voters. Measure W is a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation that San Mateo County voters approved in November.
“Our initial poll [for Measure W] showed similar support, but we also saw more of an upside after people hear positives so it’s a little discouraging that we only get to 67% after positives,” he said. “That fact plus the tremendous importance of Santa Clara and their low approval illustrates the fact that we need a very robust campaign to get this over the finish line.”
According to the polls, 61% of Santa Clara County voters support the tax and that county represents 49% of the voter population. San Francisco voters are 28% of the voter population and 67% of them support the measure while San Mateo County voters comprise 23% of the voter population and 68% of them support it.
The tax is also vulnerable to opposition, according to the polling. After hearing the following opposition argument, voter support shrank to 55%: “Some people say that we just can’t afford another tax in this area when so many families are already struggling to stay in their homes. The new gas tax and bridge tolls are already supposed to be going towards transit, but there’s just no way public transit improvements are going to significantly relieve the terrible traffic on our clogged freeways or roads.”
Stone felt that there may not be enough time for an effective outreach campaign if the measure were to be placed on the ballot in March 2020 rather than in November of that year.
“If we do March, we have the challenge of a lack of time for education. … Whoever would do the outreach work has an enormous lift to move the needle to the point where I’m comfortable putting it on the ballot in March,” he said, adding that the private sector may handle outreach efforts.
Despite the board’s concerns, a representative from EMC research, which conducted the polling, still recommended proceeding with the measure.
“There is a situation in which I’d say don’t go to the ballot and I don’t believe this is that situation. You’re really within the margin of error at that two-thirds level,” said Sara LaBatt, principal at EMC. “We think this is possible. We think it’s going to take work, it’s going to take commitment, but we think moving forward with some version of a revenue measure for Caltrain to relieve traffic along the Peninsula is something people in this area are very interested in.”
Board members also heard support for the measure during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I’ve been saying Caltrain needs dedicated funding for 20 years,” said resident Jeff Carter. “People don’t know that Caltrain is in peril and could lead to service cuts or fare hikes.”
Caltrain is also expecting ridership demand to increase by 300% over the next 20 years and a dedicated funding source would be needed to meet that demand.
Caltrain is currently funded largely by fare box revenue and by annual contributions from the three counties it serves. Sales tax revenue would supplement that money if the measure passes.
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