Bay Area voters will have a say in the future of Caltrain during the November election, with Measure RR proposing a one-eighth-cent sales tax, generating approximately $100 million a year for 30 years toward the transportation service. The measure is on the ballot for Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties – the three counties Caltrain serves – and requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
Advocates for the measure claim that the future of Caltrain could be in jeopardy if it does not pass. Caltrain relies squarely on revenue from fares for 70% of its funding, but ridership has fallen 95% since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shelter-in-place orders in the Bay Area, according to an August statement. The train service received nearly $50 million in federal CARES Act funding earlier this year, though it is still struggling financially and uncertain of funding beyond this year, Caltrain documents from July reported.
Seven local entities supported placing the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot. A survey of more than 1,000 likely voters conducted by EMC Research in June indicates the result might be close – 63.3% of respondents supported the measure, shy of the two-thirds majority needed, though the report suggested opinions could be swayed after additional information was provided.
“Because of COVID, with ridership being only about 5 to 10% of what it normally is – when you don’t have that fare box – we are at great peril of Caltrain service not being able to continue,” said Carl Guardino, spokesman for the Yes on RR campaign.
Caltrain has been run since 1992 by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which comprises nine officials from the three counties. Because the service does not have a dedicated revenue stream outside of fare-box returns, the pandemic has hit Caltrain hard, according to Guardino.
But the measure has been nearly a decade in the making for advocates. With funding from the sales tax, the goal is to triple ridership from 65,000 passengers a week to 180,000. A majority of Caltrain passengers are “choice riders,” meaning they have cars but choose to use public transit to commute.
While ridership has dwindled dramatically with the pandemic and more people working from home, advocates see expanding Caltrain as a method to reduce future traffic congestion in a post-COVID world.
“If we are not smart about making this investment now, more people will return to our roadways and in single-occupant cars than previously,” Guardino said. “This modest investment that has been in the works for a decade is actually more important now in this time of a pandemic than it was pre-COVID.”
The Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, which recommends a “no” vote on all but one measure on the ballot in Santa Clara County, argues that Measure RR is an unnecessary tax to prop up a struggling service. A survey released by Caltrain of riders in July revealed that more than 70% of respondents make over $100,000 a year.
“From a standpoint of the average ridership making over $100,000 a year, yet we’re going to have everybody and their son and daughter pay a sales tax – this literally is robbing the poor to subsidize the rich,” said Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association. “That’s just outrageous.”
Hinkle added that riders are “voting with their feet and stopped using Caltrain.”
In the same Caltrain survey, a majority of riders said they were no longer using the service because they were working from home and concerned about sanitation on public transit. More than two-thirds responded that when they did ride Caltrain during the pandemic, it was for a work-related purpose. And more than half of respondents said that when they resume using Caltrain again, they would ride at the same level as or more often than they were prior to the pandemic.
The survey conducted by EMC Research found that the level of support varied by county. Likely voters questioned in both San Francisco and San Mateo counties were more inclined to support the measure than voters in Santa Clara County. Sixty percent of voters in Santa Clara County would have voted “yes” on the measure in June, below the two-thirds threshold needed for passage.