San Francisco officials are exploring potential changes to Caltrain’s administrative structure that they believe will be necessary to meet the needs of a growing railroad.
Caltrain is currently at capacity, meaning there’s more demand than it can handle during peak hours. Caltrain service will expand from five trains per hour to six trains per hour once electrification is complete in 2022, and that’s only the beginning of the railroad’s future plans. To accommodate an expected increase of 1.2 million more people and jobs along its corridor by 2040, Caltrain could run as many as 16 trains per hour by then, which would mean an increase in daily passengers from 62,000 to as many as 207,000.
And to help pay for all that growth, Caltrain is exploring a potential sales tax to be placed on a 2020 ballot.
San Francisco officials, of course, are not ignorant of those plans.
On May 21, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution “supporting a strengthened independent agency to lead the next generation of regionally significant projects and endeavors towards a future Caltrain/High Speed Rail corridor between San Francisco and Gilroy.”
The resolution itself does not articulate what a “strengthened independent agency” entails and how it might be different from the railroad’s current structure. It is instead meant to serve as a conversation starter among Caltrain’s three member agencies — San Francisco, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County — as to what sort of structural changes might be necessary moving forward, said Shamann Walton, a San Francisco supervisor and Caltrain board member who co-sponsored the resolution with San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.
“Right now, SamTrans leadership oversees Caltrain and it’s not the most efficient way to manage a growing railroad,” Walton said. “We’re bringing this resolution forward and having conversations about what the governance should look like.”
Walton was adamant that the changes he has in mind have to do with staff and not the joint powers board comprised of mostly elected officials who decide Caltrain policy.
“In no way shape or form am I advocating for one county to have more say and I’m not advocating for any change in the joint powers board,” he said. “This is about administration and how we operate Caltrain from a staffing level.”
Caltrain is operated as a joint powers authority with board members appointed from the three counties it serves. It shares administrative services such as payroll, human resources, information technology, finance, top administrators and communications staffing with the San Mateo County Transit District, also known as SamTrans, and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. SamTrans runs the San Mateo County bus and paratransit service and the Transportation Authority, also known as the TA, oversees the countywide half-cent sales tax known as Measure A. Both the TA and SamTrans have boards nominated from San Mateo County elected officials and citizens. All three agencies are overseen by Jim Hartnett, CEO and general manager.
There are currently approximately 130 employees who charge directly to Caltrain as well as to SamTrans and or the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, Ladi Millard-Olmeda, director of budgets and financial analysis, said in an email.
Caltrain spokesman Seamus Murphy agreed that staffing and organizational changes will be necessary to meet future growth.
“It’s generally understood that these current staffing levels are not sufficient to grow the railroad in a way that meets the projected ridership demand and long-term mobility needs of the region,” he said. “If we’re going to deliver that expanded service and meet ridership demand and mobility needs we’ll need more staff, the agency will need to be resourced in different way and that’s why we included an organization assessment in the Caltrain business plan.”
The business plan is a comprehensive planning document for how the railroad will grow. It proposes three potential growth scenarios, one of which will be voted on by the joint powers board in August.
Caltrain Board Member Charles Stone, also a Belmont councilman, said he’s open to conversation but suggested Caltrain’s current management structure is not in need of wholesale changes.
“It’s encouraging to see San Francisco is paying attention to the incredible potential and value that Caltrain presents,” he said. “I think Caltrain runs pretty darn well and has since I’ve been on the board. Everything can always be made better and conversations are always a good thing. As a Caltrain board member, I’m certainly appreciative of the cost savings that the current management and operational model provides and we’re lucky to have that given the scarcity of revenue.”
Don Horsley, chair of the TA and a San Mateo County supervisor, felt major structural changes to Caltrain are unnecessary.
“I don’t think major changes to the Caltrain structure are necessary,” he said. “I don’t think you need to build up bureaucracy to run a railroad.”
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