The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Tuesday evening approved a new version of a tri-county sales tax for Caltrain that San Mateo County elected officials say is illegal and puts the future of the railroad in doubt.

“The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an alternative sales tax measure that is illegal, unwinnable at the polls and unworkable for Caltrain,” said Caltrain board Chair Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County Supervisor, in a statement. “Unless amended, this poison pill means the Caltrain sales tax is now dead, which puts the railroad in great peril.”

To be placed on the November ballot, the proposed eighth-cent sales tax must be adopted by the Caltrain board as well as the boards of supervisors and transit boards in the three counties served by the railroad: San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

Estimated to generate $108 million a year, the measure would establish a dedicated revenue source for Caltrain for the first time in its history. After COVID-19 dramatically reduced ridership and revenue, Pine and many other San Mateo County officials say the sales tax is now needed to prevent a systemwide shutdown of the railroad.    

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors last month approved the sales tax, but not the same one approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That measure includes various conditions, including withholding funds, supermajority voting requirements and demands for changes related to Caltrain’s governance structure.

Pine said tying the above conditions to the sales tax is illegal because it’s not permitted by Senate Bill 797, the legislation that allows a sales tax to be levied for Caltrain. That opinion has been echoed by San Mateo County Counsel John Beiers and San Mateo County Transit District Special Counsel James Wagstaffe, Pine said.

San Francisco supervisors, namely Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin, believe Caltrain’s current governance structure is unfair because it gives San Mateo County too much control over the railroad. While the Caltrain board has equal representation among the three counties it serves, the railroad is managed day to day by SamTrans, San Mateo County’s bus agency.

That arrangement was conceived decades ago because San Mateo County bailed out the railroad and to this day is owed roughly $20 million by both San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

Peskin and Walton specifically want to separate Caltrain from SamTrans with separate staff and legal counsel and also give equal say among the three counties when it comes to the hiring and firing of Caltrain’s executive director.

“It is time to have shared governance,” Peskin said during Tuesday’s meeting. “It is time to extract Caltrain from SamTrans and their intermingling of responsibilities and potentially funding.”

Walton, during the meeting, argued Caltrain ridership is affluent and lacks diversity, which would change if San Francisco is given more control over the railroad.

“One of my major concerns upon serving on the [Caltrain board] was the lack of diversity of ridership, not just because of ethnicity, but also because of economics and how much people make that ride on Caltrain,” he said, adding the alternative ballot measure seeks to expand access to the railroad among low-income communities.

“But I do believe with us having a hand in governance and leadership in the rail system those changes that we want to happen because we have dedicated folks willing to serve to make that happen and push the envelope I think it will happen,” Walton said.

Pine also said a ballot measure with the above conditions “would be unwinnable at the polls as it lacks support from numerous transit advocates, business leaders and elected officials and would not be well received by voters who simply want to fund the railroad.”

An overwhelming majority of speakers during Tuesday’s meeting urged the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a “clean” version of the measure without conditions. Doing so would give the measure a greater chance of making it to the ballot and being approved by voters to “save” Caltrain, they argued.

But San Francisco supervisors didn’t share that perspective.

“Their notion of clean is my notion of dirty,” Peskin said.

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