In the Public Interest
Why It is Critical to Allow Voters to Decide on Caltrain’s 1/8 Cent Sales Tax Measure
By Adrian Fine, Palo Alto Mayor
Given recent public discussions on this topic, I would like to take a moment and provide a personal perspective on the importance of placing Caltrain’s 1/8 cent sales tax measure on the ballots in our three counties. I also hope to clear up any possible misperception that I acted without the authority of the Palo Alto City Council on a recent letter urging the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors to place the ballot measure on the November 2020 ballot for voters to decide.
Unfortunately, on July 14 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took the surprising step to not add the 1/8 cent sales tax measure to the ballot.
This refusal meant that prompt action by other cities in the region to weigh in on this issue was necessary in order to share community concerns and ensure that voters have a choice on this matter. In order for a ballot measure to be on the November ballot, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors must take action by July 31. As a result, there was a sense of urgency for Palo Alto to share concerns on this matter while the City Council was on summer recess.
On July 20, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors received a letter from the City of Palo Alto supporting placing Caltrain’s 1/8 cent sales tax measure on the ballots in our three counties. This note was written in full accordance with City Council and City policies. In fact, a foundational principle from the City of Palo Alto City Council’s legislative guidelines includes protecting, seeking, and increasing funding for programs, projects, and services. Other council advocacy guidelines include supporting local and regional public transportation and supporting the collaborative work of regional partners, trade associations, and Joint Powers Authorities. These guidelines were approved by the City Council in late 2019.
Further, the City Council unanimously established “improving mobility for all” as one of three City Council priorities in February 2020. These Council discussions were open to the public, informed through an online survey of the community that garnered over 500 recommended priorities and set our Council-driven focus for 2020. The financial health and future of Caltrain is an important priority and one that ties directly to the City Council’s priority for 2020. Transportation is a community priority set by the City Council and as such, staff is working towards executing on these priorities.
By asking that voters get a chance to decide if they want to impose a sales tax on themselves to continue Caltrain service, we are adhering to the Council guidelines by seeking increased funding for this important service, supporting public transportation, and supporting the work of our regional partners. The City Council and community will have an opportunity to weigh on the pros and cons of that measure, but it must be placed on the ballot in all 3 counties first.
Caltrain service is dependent on ticket fares for 70% of its operating funding, and due to the current public health emergency, ridership is significantly impacted. Unfortunately, even as employers slowly return to work, Caltrain will continue to need to limit ridership in order to allow for social distancing. The agency is currently projecting a $71 million deficit over the next fiscal year, and it will likely need to have a complete shutdown of service for years to recover. The 1/8 cent sales tax measure as a funding option is not new nor last minute. The potential measure is included in the Caltrain Business Plan that all local agencies discussed at length, including Palo Alto’s City Council and has been the understanding for several years.
While the Council has not yet had a chance to weigh in on if they would ultimately support and advocate that our community vote for the tax measure as a governing body, my letter on behalf of the City Council and our community sought to urge the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to place Caltrain’s 1/8 cent sales tax measure on the ballot this upcoming November for voters to decide. On the substance of the measure, of course there are issues with governance, ridership during COVID-19, and the regressive nature of a sales tax. All of which should be discussed within the community and throughout our region and evaluated further by all governments that are served by Caltrain. However, the City letter sent was intended to ensure that voters could decide on the measure.
As a regional partner, the City of Palo Alto has continuously voiced its support for Caltrain and other regional transportation agencies and projects. In fact, members of the city council have advocated at the State and Federal levels just this past legislative session to support funding for Caltrain grade separations. The letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reinforces the City Council’s longstanding focus on transportation issues and the City Council can still weigh in on if it would like to advocate for our community to support such a measure, if it ends up on the November ballot. Historically, the Council will weigh in on advocating for or against specific measures in September.
Since the release of an initial letter, we’ve learned of additional discussions with regional partners scheduled for early August. As a result, the City Council will have time on August 3 at their regular meeting to discuss next steps on this issue.
I appreciate staff’s support in ensuring that as a City, we are acting in support of these regional issues quickly, without political posturing, and for the betterment of our community and region as a whole.
City of Palo Alto Mayor