Caltrain Needs Certainty

The governance of Caltrain has been much in the news lately. Given all the talk, one would think that the agency was in a shambles. But it’s not. In fact Caltrain is a well run and well maintained operation that, pre-COVID, was popular with riders and enjoying a steadily increasing ridership.

So why all the hoopla?

MTC, the Caltrain Joint Powers Authority (JPB) and Samtrans, the agency that manages the system for the JPB, have unaccountably squashed four manageable problems into a single highly complex one that they seem unable to address in a calm and dispassionate way, much less resolve.

Let’s take each of the four manageable problems in turn:

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Problem 1:  MTC has long owed Samtrans a portion of the money Samtrans advanced to buy the Caltrain right-of-way from Southern Pacific in 1991. MTC has now said that it will shortly pay Samtrans the $19.6 million owed since in 2008, in exchange for the JPB’s agreement to “consider” any future governance changes that might evolve from MTC’s newly initiated regional governance study.

Problem 2:  The JPB’s Caltrain electrification project is currently $462.4 million over budget. According to the JPB this problem resulted from the COVID shutdown, unforeseen subsoil factors and disputes with the contractor. An additional $200 million in “super contingency” is apparently regarded as necessary to cover possible future difficulties. Needless to say this large overrun is a serious problem in need of redress. To address it the JPB has developed a repayment plan to be provided mostly by local jurisdictions which would raise 55% of the total needed. The JPB hopes to acquire the remaining balance from MTC as well as from State and federal sources.

Problem 3:  Pursuant to the Agreement of 2008, Caltrain is currently managed by Samtrans. Samtrans has done a generally excellent job of providing a successful system in harmony with policies established by the JPB. To ensure good communication between Samtrans and the JPB, Samtrans makes regular reports to the JPB during its monthly meetings. Certain members of the JPB nevertheless feel that the JPB should have more direct control over Caltrain work being done by Samtrans. (A reasonable question might be: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it”). However, in an attempt to move things along, on February 2, 2022 the Samtrans board approved a reorganization proposal which was presented to the JPB at its February 3rd meeting. Based upon what is now on the table, the following Problem 3 issues appear to be outstanding and in need of attention:

  1. In exchange for giving up its long held right to exclusively own the Caltrain right-of-way and manage the Caltrain operation, Samtrans wants both the $19.8 million referenced above and an additional $15.2 million “in lost interest”.The JPB understandably has asked for a breakdown on how the latter figure was derived.
  2. Samtrans does not want to give up its rights until it has assurances the funds owed will be provided by an agreed upon “date certain”
  3. Since there will continue to be some shared responsibilities, each agency wants to be indemnified against losses caused by actions beyond its control.Appropriate language needed.
  4. Members of the JPB have asked to see a detailed breakdown of how Samtrans gets paid for its services to the JPB.
  5. JPB members have asked for documentation on how any “shared services” will be defined and paid for.Appropriate language needed.

It should not be difficult to provide answers to all of these questions  and where necessary to include the appropriate language in a letter of agreement between the two agencies.

Problem 4:  Ascertaining the relative value of the Caltrain operation to each of the three counties, an issue ever subject to the perceptions of the various political players, is a knotty separate problem that requires careful analysis. It is suggested that rather than putting the various JPB members in the unproductive position of having to continuously spar with one another over who should pay what to whom, the JPB could create a highly-qualified advisory committee comprised of one JPB Board member from each of the three JPB Counties, one individual separately selected by each of the three respective County Boards of Supervisors and approved by at least seven members of the JPB, and one MTC Commissioner selected by MTC. Such a committee, whatever its makeup, should be charged with coming up with a way of assigning costs to the three counties that is both logical and fair to all parties. If the three affected counties were unable come to agreement, State-administered outside mediation and/or arbitration could be applied.

It appears that with an orderly and professional approach each of the four problems can be expeditiously resolved.

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