Why I have reservations about the Measure RR Caltrain tax (but I’m voting for it anyway)

October 14, 2020 by MrEricSir

Recently the three main counties that serve CalTrain were asked to add an additional sales tax to fund CalTrain service. This was initially rejected by San Francisco leading to some finger wagging, before ultimately landing on the ballot.

Many transit advocates decried San Francisco’s decision, but let me point something out: of all the counties asked to add an additional tax for CalTrain, San Francisco is the only one within an existing transit tax district — the BART sales tax district. In other words San Francisco is being asked to join a second public transit tax district.

Meanwhile, while BART does go into San Mateo County and recently into Santa Clara County as well, both of those counties opted to pay for BART service separately instead of joining the BART tax district.

To put it simply, CalTrain should be part of BART. If the two entities were folded into one and were part of the same tax district, what’s to lose? Think about it: CalTrain serves San Mateo and Santa Clara counties much the same way BART does, and with the upcoming electrification project should have a BART-like more frequent schedule in the future.

Let’s call this BART/CalTrain merger “BARTrain” for the purpose of this conjecture.

Before anyone complains with “hey I don’t like the way BART is governed” well BART is a democracy. You can get involved with the BART board if you live in the district, from emailing them with your dissatisfaction all the way up to running for a board seat.

There’s many more obvious gains here as well. The worst part of public transit is transferring between lines with unpredictable schedules. BART does timed transfers within its own system, which is convenient when transferring between lines in the East Bay. Imagine if BARTrain had timed transfers at the existing Millbrae station and the upcoming San Jose Diridon BART extension?

On a longer timeline the planned BART extension into San Jose could simply terminate at the new BARTrain Diridon Station as it would make the plans to extend BART to Santa Clara redundant. That money could be used for other projects like the long-planned CalTrain Dumbarton project which would provide a second bay crossing for BARTrain, or even something else entirely — BARTrain to Half Moon Bay? — just spitballing here.

For now anyway the existing San Jose/Gilroy CalTrain corridor could be operated as a special commuter extension, very similar to the recent Antioch BART extension which uses diesel trains and extends into less populated counties outside the core operating area.

Should you vote yes on the 2020 Measure RR? Yes, it will help upgrade CalTrain and get cars off the road in the post-pandemic era. But it’s not ideal at all — let’s have one transit tax district that covers the entire Bay Area to provide simple, equitable, convenient transit for everyone.