Keeping Caltrain on Track in COVID-19

Transit agencies throughout our region are taking a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now more than ever, it’s crucial that we support transit.

Caltrain, which is the main transit artery connecting San Francisco, the Peninsula, and South Bay, has been hit harder than most agencies. At its lowest, Caltrain ridership was down 95% since lockdowns began. With rider fares making up 70% of its revenue, the board of Caltrain introduced a ⅛ cent sales tax proposal across the three counties it serves, in a last-ditch effort to avoid halting service entirely.

The proposed sales tax measure — which would appear on the November ballot — has been approved by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), which operates Caltrain for the Peninsula Joint Powers Board. But it is being held up at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, despite widespread public support for the measure.

This ballot measure isn’t just a band aid: Post-pandemic, the revenue will allow Caltrain to expand service, reduce fares for low-income riders, and replace funding that Caltrain currently receives from county transit agencies. This helps San Francisco’s own transit system too: Currently, SFMTA contributes $15.6 million per year to Caltrain; and if passed, the proposed sales tax would replace that funding and leave SFMTA with much-needed funds for its own recovery.

During the pandemic, many riders are avoiding public transit. But allowing our transit systems to fail would have devastating long-term repercussions for our region, both environmentally and economically.

Car exhaust is the leading cause of carbon dioxide emissions in California. Experts are already warning of a looming “carmaggedon” on the horizon as people return to work, causing irreparable harm to the environment. With Caltrain nearing completion of the electrification of its system, now is the time to incentivize more commuters to use mass transit, which has proven not to be a vector of COVID-19 when proper precautions are taken.

A viable transit system is also essential to our economic recovery, and to ensuring equitable access to jobs. Low-income and transit-dependent people make up the majority of riders across all regional transit systems currently, and failing to care for those riders by funding transit now could lead to a “transit death spiral” that will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us. Access to high-quality transit is essential for economic mobility, especially for low-income people who can’t afford cars or other transportation options to get to work. And as a major commuter rail, Caltrain will play a vital role in building a more sustainable future for our overall region.

We urge the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to approve placing this measure on the ballot in order to ensure a transit future that is sustainable and equitable.

Join the United Dems and others in asking the Board of Supervisors to save Caltrain!

Mark Press

United Dems Board Member and Executive Director of Fare Free Alliance

We are an inclusive and progressive group of Democrats who believe that everyone should have a place in San Francisco.