SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – With Caltrain ridership plummeting during the coronavirus pandemic, a sales tax measure on the November ballot could provide a lifeline.

Trains have been providing passenger service from San Francisco to San Jose since Abraham Lincoln was President. But now, the rail line known today as Caltrain is in trouble, and officials say if Measure RR doesn’t pass, the system could be shut down.

Back in the days before COVID-19, no one would have believed that the station on Fourth Street in San Francisco could look like it does, nearly deserted at midday on a Wednesday.  And inside the station there is even less activity.

“It’s been super empty and even sometimes when I’m commuting during rush hour it was hard to get a seat.  Now, I almost got a whole car to myself,” said Mike Donnelly, who commutes daily to his job in Palo Alto.

Caltrain was one of the most efficient transit systems in the Bay Area, with 70 percent of its expense paid for by riders’ fares.  But that means it’s hurt even more when there are fewer riders.

“In good times, we’re really happy not to need extra support from a sales tax,” said Caltrain Board Chair Dave Pine. “But Caltrain, unlike every other transit system, has never had a dedicated source of revenue.”

So Measure RR has been put up for a vote in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. It would create an eighth of a cent sales tax on each dollar spent, specifically to fund Caltrain.

Transit officials hope one day the money can be used to increase the reach and frequency of the service. But right now it will simply be a lifeline.

“In the next few years, without this, Caltrain will have to shut down,” said Gwen Litvak, Sr. VP for Public Policy with the Bay Area Council. “And that is an imminent and real fear for many riders of Caltrain and those businesses that rely on Caltrain.”

Measure RR requires a 2/3 vote to pass.

There isn’t much organized opposition but the arguments against it focus on whether it’s fair to be raising taxes when so many are out of work and businesses are failing, especially to fund a train system that few are even using.

And now that so many have learned to work remotely, some believe commute transit may never return to pre-pandemic levels.

But planners like Dave Pine say they have to assume it will.

“It’s just hard to imagine a world where Caltrain is not in great demand,” he said.

Currently, the three Peninsula counties pay to make up the difference between fare revenues and the cost to run the system.  Supporters say Measure RR would relieve a lot of that burden, allowing counties to spend their money elsewhere.

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