The future of Caltrain, the commuter rail between San Francisco and San Jose, is on the ballot as Measure RR in three counties on November 3. Measure RR, a 1/8-cent sales tax dedicated to Caltrain, must earn a total of 2/3 of the vote in Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco counties in order to pass.
TransForm is urging a “yes” vote because Caltrain is an essential part of our regional transit system and we can’t reach our climate or transportation equity goals without it. However, this wasn’t a simple or easy decision for us to make.
Our “yes” is a begrudging one because sales taxes (even ⅛-cent sales taxes like this one) are regressive — everyone pays the same amount, regardless of their ability to afford it or their use of the service it funds. Meanwhile, Caltrain ridership tends to be high-income white-collar commuters, and fares are relatively high ($30 for a round trip between SF and San Jose). We are working hard with our allies to advance more progressive funding sources for future transportation investments, but a fairer funding source is not on the table here. (More about sales taxes below.)
The saving grace is that Caltrain has recently developed an equity policy framework that acknowledges and begins to address some shortcomings of the system. This is the direct result of TransForm’s advocacy, along with Friends of Caltrain and our allies in the TEAMC coalition. It includes policies to make Caltrain “more accessible and relevant to lower income people and members of racial groups and communities who have historically been marginalized and overlooked in planning and government processes,” such as:
- scheduling changes to better align with local bus service, which lower income people are more likely to use to get to Caltrain,
- participation in the region’s means-based fare program with a 50% discount for qualified riders,
- reconsidering outreach and engagement practices to better welcome and include riders from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and
- seeking temporary suspension of approved fare increases.
Many of these policies represent a striking departure from the status quo, and this equity framework would be enshrined in law with the passage of Measure RR. Of course, this is still an early win for mobility justice in and around Caltrain, and we’ll continue to work with marginalized groups and local partners to build on it.
If you care about transportation in the Bay Area, and especially if you have reservations about Measure RR (not to be confused with 2018’s regional Measure RR to make BART more safe and reliable), it’s important to understand some background about how Caltrain ended up here.
First of all, COVID-19 has decimated transit funding, which is usually made up of a combination of state and federal money, sales taxes, and fares. Caltrain receives an unusually large share of its revenue, 70%, from fares. As ridership has rebounded somewhat on local bus service (VTA is at 27% of pre-COVID ridership), Caltrain’s ridership is hovering around just 5% of pre-COVID levels — perhaps because their largely white-collar higher income commuters are staying home or using other modes. If no new funding comes through, the agency is in danger of shutting down entirely by the end of the year, or being forced to privatize — both worst case scenarios for an essential public service. Caltrain’s new equity policies and long-planned electrification are important steps in the right direction that will come to nothing if the railway shuts down.
Before COVID-19, Caltrain carried 65,000 passengers a day during the week, keeping thousands of commuters out of their cars and 110 metric tons of carbon emissions out of the air and the lungs of people living near Highway 101, where many of the lower income communities and communities of color in those counties are located. By keeping cars off the road, Caltrain has important benefits for neighbors near and far, even those who rarely or never ride it.
Last month, after a real nail-biter of a process, all seven necessary government entities voted to approve putting Measure RR on the ballot. If passed, it will create the first-ever dedicated revenue source for Caltrain in its 157-year history. Up to now, Caltrain has been funded in large part by contributions from the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in Santa Clara, SamTrans in San Mateo, and the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority (SFMTA). This ⅛ cent sales tax will generate $108 million dollars per year. That means VTA, Samtrans, and SFMTA will be able to save millions of dollars per year to dedicate to their own operations — another win for equity since those systems all serve a more diverse ridership than Caltrain with lower incomes on average. (They’ll still contribute to capital projects for Caltrain, but not operations.)
Measure RR is a sales tax because of a bill the state legislature passed in 2017, SB 797 (Hill). Ballot measures that span more than one county require enabling state legislation, and a sales tax was the only authorized revenue mechanism in the bill. TransForm did not mount a campaign for more progressive revenues in that case, but we have learned our lesson!
We need to stop depending on sales taxes that disproportionately burden low-income people to fund transit service. Transit riders pay more than their fair share in money and time. Businesses and wealthy residents who can most afford it need to step up and do their part to support the public service they also depend on — for mobility, for the climate, and to relieve traffic. Inequitable taxes are not actually the only option, and it’s past time they stop being presented as such.
That said, Measure RR is not the battleground for that fight — TransForm and our Voices for Public Transportation coalition are taking it to the state level as we look to the next, much larger regional transportation funding measure. Join our fight to ensure those with the ability to pay and least impacted by the pandemic are those who carry the brunt of the cost for saving and improving public transportation in the Bay Area.
This November, it is not a decision between a sales tax and another revenue source; it’s a question of Caltrain’s survival and the possibility it could emerge from this crisis more equitable than before. Measure RR is the only real option on the table, and we urge you to support it. If you're inspired to do more, sign up to phone and text bank here.
This blog post is part of TransForm's November 2020 Voter Guide, which has all our recommendations on transportation and housing issues on the ballot in California and throughout the Bay Area.