Bay Area and Peninsula residents are still celebrating the federal government’s decision to award Caltrain a $647 million grant to electrify the commuter rail system. This was a tremendous victory for our region.
However, SB 797 provides the opportunity to build on those planned improvements and make an even greater impact. We shouldn’t let this moment pass us by.
First, let’s begin by stating the problem we are trying to solve. Highway 101 on the peninsula resembles more of a parking lot than a highway and is designated as one of the worst commute corridors in the entire state. The parallel Caltrain commuter rail service is standing room only, running at 125 percent of capacity in both directions during peak commute periods. A large scale solution is needed to unwind traffic congestion, now.
We are advocating that specific, large scale solution. SB 797, introduced by Senators Jerry Hill, Jim Beall, Bob Wieckowski and Scott Weiner, would allow voters in the three “Caltrain Counties” of Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco to hold a joint election to permanently fund the operations, maintenance and expansion of the popular Caltrain commuter rail service.
Consider these facts. Three of every five Caltrain riders are “choice riders,” meaning they own a car but are choosing to ride Caltrain instead of further clogging Highways 101 and 280. Even if you are not a Caltrain rider, you can see the direct benefit of taking cars off the highway. Since Caltrain’s transition to an electric system is projected to increase daily ridership by 80 percent, the investments of a three county Caltrain measure could increase daily ridership to over 250,000. That’s a game-changer.
Today Caltrain’s operations are funded in large part by annual voluntary contributions from transit agencies within these three “Caltrain Counties.” This unorthodox system creates a volatile financial environment, making it difficult to plan for improved service or capital improvements needed to bolster the system.
The system also leaves Caltrain’s funding partners with the yearly challenge of identifying millions more in their budgets to ensure the crucial Caltrain system does not cut back service, which would result in even more packed trains and clogged freeways.
For decades, the three counties have made good faith efforts funding smaller scale improvements to the system. However, these local measures fall woefully short of the investment Caltrain needs to deliver transformative traffic relief. A three county sales tax measure will focus our attention, efforts and resources in order to deliver a solution with a large enough impact.
SB 797 isn’t parochial. Residents of all three counties would pay the same sales tax rate, and the Caltrain Joint Powers Board (which has equal representation from all three counties) would make the decisions on investments. A three county Caltrain Measure isn’t about fixing one segment of Peninsula traffic; it is about improving the system as a whole to make dramatic improvements along the entire commute.
SB 797 passed the State Assembly on Sept. 1 and the State Senate on Sept. 11. It is now on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Both Silicon Valley Leadership Group and sf.citi have sent letters to the governor imploring his leadership on this crucial issue and asking for him to sign the bill into law.
It would be a shame to see this opportunity pass us by while commuters remain parked on Hwy.101 asking for a real solution.
Chris O’Connor is Senior Director, Transportation for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Jennifer Stojkovic is Executive Director of sf.citi, a public policy advocacy group for the San Francisco tech industry. They wrote this for The Mercury News.