After weeks of contentious negotiations, the one-eighth cent sales tax for Caltrain cleared a final hurdle Friday and is officially headed to the November ballot.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors — at a special meeting just hours before the deadline — unanimously approved a “clean” version of the tax without conditions. It was the last of seven boards needed to sign off on the measure before it could go before voters.
“We have a measure that should be very clear and straightforward for voters,” said San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney. “I hope San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara voters ultimately support it.”
Placing the tax on the ballot seemed nearly impossible just days ago until a last-minute deal between San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties — the three counties served by Caltrain — was announced on Tuesday.
The deal secured tri-county support for placing the “clean” tax on the ballot in exchange for addressing long-standing concerns about governance of the railroad, articulated in a resolution adopted by the Caltrain board Friday.
Officials in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have long been concerned that Caltrain’s current governance structure is unfair because it grants San Mateo County too much control over the railroad. The resolution creates a path for resolving that concern.
“We ultimately got everything we’ve collectively been insisting on,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “We’ve been very very clear. … We could only support [the sales tax] if we were co-equal partners with Santa Clara and San Mateo. That’s on its way to being achieved for the betterment of the railroad, its passengers, congestion and greenhouse gases.”
The resolution sets deadlines for coming up with new governance models for the railroad, it establishes an independent counsel and auditor for Caltrain separate from SamTrans and establishes new protocol for how the Caltrain board operates. It also requires a two-thirds vote of the Caltrain board to allocate potential tax revenue and includes language about repaying San Mateo County for its past investment in the railroad.
San Mateo County officials remain concerned about some of the provisions in the resolution, but have reluctantly supported it in the interest of securing funding for the struggling railroad. During the Friday meeting, San Francisco supervisors suggested San Mateo County officials were the primary roadblock to advancing the tax to the ballot.
“It took San Mateo forever to realize the importance of this,” said board President Norman Yee.
Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer added “I’m also sorry it had to come to this point actually for us to have our rightful place in governance.”
Supporters of the tax say it’s desperately needed to prevent Caltrain from shutting down amid the pandemic-driven financial crisis and also to fund ambitious expansion plans over the next 20 years.
If it passes, the tax will provide Caltrain a dedicated source of revenue for the first time in its history, generating $108 million a year over 30 years.
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