The fight over the future of Caltrain is coming down to the final days and the central challenge may well be whether the San Mateo County members of the railroad’s board of directors can hold the line and win over two allies.
As a reminder, this is a fight that is entirely unnecessary, for which no good reason has been provided, which remains entirely political and, most alarmingly, threatens the future of Caltrain, the most successful transit system on the west side of San Francisco Bay.
Nonetheless, the board members from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties continue to push for a restructuring of Caltrain, which has been managed by SamTrans since the inception of the three-party partnership that took over the rail service in 1991.
The fight over the who runs Caltrain began six years ago when the SamTrans board formally hired Jim Hartnett as the new general manager of SamTrans and the CEO of Caltrain. A San Francisco board member objected that the Caltrain board should have been the one to hire the new CEO. Never mind that representatives from all three partners had a direct voice in the hiring of Hartnett.
This first-ever complaint has blown up into a challenge to the co-equal partnership and a management structure that, over 30 years, has grown Caltrain service into a national model of effectiveness, and now is modernizing the system for an even greater future. It is safe to assume that had Caltrain continued as a small and largely ineffective local rail service that none of this would be happening. It is only when Caltrain began enjoying historic levels of success that representatives from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties began sticking their fingers in the pie, rather, apparently, than paying attention to the dreadful performances of their own transit systems.
Anyway, it appears the newest recommendation is for a new governance structure that, while not sweeping, does significantly diminish the authority SamTrans has had over the management of Caltrain. A reasonable compromise might be that the Caltrain board hires the CEO and does the annual performance review. But this whole process has been anything but reasonable, and, as I said, the real risk is that the northern and southern partners will do something profoundly foolish and destroy Caltrain in the process.
The only real hope is that one or two board members from San Francisco or Santa Clara County will realize they are not solving a problem, but creating one.
Indeed, throughout this entire fiasco, there has yet to be an answer to this single, critical question: What is the problem with Caltrain that a new governance structure will fix? Other questions: Will the new structure make Caltrain service better? Will it provide more service to would-be customers in any of the three counties? Will it speed the electrification of Caltrain? Will it improve the finances of Caltrain?
As the board wrestles directly with this matter in upcoming meetings, it would be instructive if just one of the San Francisco or Santa Clara County board members were to answer just that first question.
They will not. They cannot.
So, it falls on the San Mateo County representatives to hold firm and to find a way to fend off this foolish and ill-conceived effort, and, with any luck, identify some measure of support from their partners.
The last time one of the county’s representatives tried to find common ground, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, the other partners took that as an opening through which they have charged at full speed.
The SamTrans position has to be clear: If you want to break up the Caltrain partnership, you have to pay us money. An agreement between the partners names SamTrans as the managing partner as long as it wants to do so. This is indisputable. The same agreement indicates that if SamTrans is not the managing agency, it is entitled to the full interest on the money it advanced decades ago on behalf of the other partners to buy Caltrain and save the Peninsula rail service.
Despite a mythology promulgated by the partners, SamTrans has continued to subsidize Caltrain, largely through staffing costs that never have been fully captured in the Caltrain budget.
This is what needs to be the clear message: Pay us or leave Caltrain alone.
FREE BRISBANE! In last week’s clarion call to lift Brisbane from the yoke of the 415 area code, recovering journalist David Burruto pointed out — I just knew this was going to happen — that the Bayshore area of Daly City also is outside the warm embrace of the 650 area code. So, yes, them, too. Free Brisbane/Bayshore!
Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.