On the November ballot is an eighth-cent sales tax for Caltrain that proponents say is needed to save the railroad from a pandemic-induced financial crisis and also realize plans to grow service to BART-like levels over the next two decades.
But opponents of Measure RR say it disproportionately affects low-income residents who shouldn’t bear the cost of a railroad primarily used by affluent commuters. Opponents of the measure are also convinced fewer and fewer people will use Caltrain moving forward in part because of the advent of work-from-home policies.
If approved by two thirds of the voters in San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, the tax will generate an estimated $108 million annually for 30 years. Caltrain currently gets the majority of its funding from fares along with contributions from the three counties it serves.
With ridership down 95% since the onset of the pandemic, Caltrain is facing an $18 million budget deficit that will deepen if riders don’t soon return. Only federal CARES Act funding is keeping the trains running and that money is quickly running out, officials say.
“If we don’t have the sales tax we’re out of revenue and we’ll very likely have to stop the passenger service or radically reduce it,” said Dave Pine, the chair of Caltrain’s board of directors and also a San Mateo County supervisor. “It’s very much an existential threat to the railroad.”
Without Caltrain, residents can expect traffic congestion to be worse than it was before the pandemic, proponents of the measure argue.
“Voting yes on RR will remove thousands of cars from our highways every day,” reads the official ballot argument against the measure. “Without Caltrain, traffic congestion will soon be worse than before COVID-19.”
But opponents believe Caltrain ridership will never return to prepandemic rates given the rising popularity of working from home.
“Prepandemic levels they will never get back to,” said Jim Lawrence, a former Foster City mayor who wrote the ballot argument against the measure. “Every major corporation is saying they now work remotely. Many are even moving out of the Bay Area. So we’re not going to have this mass influx every day going up and down the Peninsula. It’s just not going to happen.”
Measure RR supporters, on the other hand, are confident ridership will return to prepandemic levels. That’s in part because there remains “strong interest” in development in the region and because telecommuting will not be as widespread as Lawrence believes, according to Don Cecil, with the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, or SAMCEDA.
“When we talk to major employers yes they’ve made decisions like allowing employees to work from home permanently or allowing them to work from home until next June, but no one envisions a complete telecommute environment that I’m speaking with,” Cecil said.
Adina Levin of the nonprofit Friends of Caltrain noted recent polling found 70% of people who were frequent users of Caltrain plan on using the railroad as much or more than before the pandemic.
“The surveys of individuals also show people are planning to come back,” she said. “People who are working from home while their small children run around in the background and they’re hearing maybe their housemate talk on the phone on their other Zoom call are eager to get back to the office.”
Lawrence also cited the regressive nature of sales taxes and the ongoing financial crisis as reasons to reject the Caltrain tax proposal.
“Regressive taxes impact the lowest end of our economy and households the worst with no direct benefit back to them,” he said. “[Caltrain] is expensive, it’s not convenient for them and very few use it. … Why should the general public pay for something that less than 1% of the community uses?”
“Riders of Caltrain are the upper end of the economy,” he continued. “Household incomes [among riders] are approaching $200,000.”
Levin countered 30% of Caltrain riders are considered low-income.
“It’s not true that Caltrain is all affluent riders,” she said. “There’s 30% of people who are low-income who have been using the service historically. Also that is disproportionately lower than the share of low-income people who live near the corridor and work on the corridor. By making Caltrain more affordable, there are people that would be able to take advantage of that.”
Pine said “making Caltrain accessible to more riders is a key element of Measure RR.”
“Fundamentally when you’re able to offer more service on different schedules it opens up the railway to a host of different types of riders,” he said, noting when electrification is complete in 2022, service will go from 92 trains per day to 168 trains per day. “That’s big growth and Measure RR helps to pay some of those operating expenses to get there.”
Pine also referenced a soon-to-launch pilot program offering 50% fare reductions to low-income riders.
“To maintain that, Measure RR will be a big help,” he said.
Mark Hinkle of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association said voters are being inundated with tax hikes at a time when many are out of work.
“If you add up all the taxes that are going to be on the ballot in November it’s over $5 billion in tax increases at a time when people are being laid off, furloughed or working part time,” he said. “Talking about kicking someone when they’re down. It’s absolutely the wrong time for a tax increase.”
On the other hand, the official ballot argument in favor of the Caltrain tax describes it as a “small price to pay” to save the railroad.
“Don’t fall victim to the naysayers’ scare tactics,” the argument reads. “Measure RR only adds one penny to an $8 purchase and essentials like groceries and medicine are exempt. That’s a small price to pay to prevent traffic congestion and save Caltrain.”
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