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Cozy Relationships between San Carlos and Samtrans/Caltrain

Cozy Relationships between San Carlos and Samtrans/Caltrain

One of the most distressing issues that we have uncovered as a GESC board is the very cozy relationship between San Carlos City Council, City Staff and Samtrans/Caltrain. You might say, so what, what does that really matter? These are just agencies and individuals that are in the know and have a solid working relationship.

We have always felt that this was a problem especially as it related to any projects involving the city and Samtrans/Caltrain. Take the berm for example. Our mayor seems to think that the berm is a shining example of great architectural design and has been a great benefit to the city. San Carlos Councilman (now mayor) Omar Ahmad gave a presentation in Palo Alto on how raised berms have benefited San Carlos. Of course Mr. Ahmad and the city council have completely ignored the tremendous downsides of the berm project to the GESC community.

I bring this up because we have been pointing out for years how poorly designed and thought through the San Carlos Transit Village proposal is. But how do you expect to be heard when you have politicians with conflicts of interest, or at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest given that Mr. Ahmad sits as the Mayor of San Carlos and is on the Caltrain board.

Speaking of the Caltrain board – the San Jose Mercury News has a shocking indictment of the Caltrain board, stating that:

a group of local politicians in charge of Caltrain unanimously approves every item that comes before it, seldom debating or asking questions even as the rail line faces a historic financial crisis that soon could lead those same leaders to shutter half its stations.

The board members and staff executives appear to have a congenial relationship, sometimes joking during meetings and rarely, if ever, grilling one another publicly. What’s more, Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon donated $900 to Jerry Hill’s 2008 campaign for state Assembly while he was on the board, a few years after Scanlon had contributed $1,500 to former board member Mike Nevin — who hired Scanlon — for Nevin’s failed run for state Senate.

For an astonishing three years, the Caltrain board has nodded along in unity to approve 200 straight items, including key decisions to cut service, raise fares, increase salaries and change policy, according to a Mercury News review of meeting records. Board members typically were silent before most of the votes, which all were based on recommendations from SamTrans executives who manage the rail line’s day-to-day operations. Their final vote count since the last disagreement: 1,591 yes, 0 no.

“There’s something wrong when you have total agreement for three years, only to wind up in a financial disaster,” Heller, executive director of Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog, said after being informed of the votes. “It indicates that no one’s really paying attention.”

The board cut service in October 2008 and increased fares in July 2009 — each time without asking a question or making a single comment directly before voting, even though thousands of riders had written with concerns.

The entire article can be found here on the Mercury News website. Please read it. I also think it is worth checking out this article on the Caltrain/Samtrans CEO Mike Scanlon, nice work if you can get it eh?

To be fair, Mr Ahmad has stated that he would recuse himself from any votes regarding the Samtrans planned Transit Village as a member of the Caltrain board and only vote as Mayor based on the merits to the city. But we have a hard time with this stance. We feel Mr. Ahmad is in the perfect position to work with both Samtrans and the city to broker a new plan that works for the GESC community and San Carlos as a whole and are waiting to see some evidence to that fact.


  1. With the financial situation at SamTrans deteriorating by the day, the question must be asked: Why hasn’t SamTrans withdrawn the San Carlos Transit Village project and begun to focus on how to run an efficient transportation business as opposed to becoming real estate moguls? Talking about a lack of focus, this epitomizes poor management.

    Please see today’s article: (SamTrans Close to Disappearing)

    Many of us have experienced real estate mogul mania, and SamTrans’ Real Estate folly is no different and should not allow the building of a 55 foot, 8-block wall with the same structural financial deficits that SamTrans has become known for over the last 30 years (No property taxes from the project, dwindling property taxes from GESC neighborhood as falling property values lead to lower assessments, higher demand on school district without funding, and a massive, unfunded increase in demand for fire and police services.)

    The time has come to stand up against the insanity of these cozy relationships between San Carlos, SamTrans, and Legacy Partners. The reality is that our City Government has feigned community involvement and ignored us every step of the way on the San Carlos Transit Village project.

  2. As a lifelong resident of the Peninsula I can only quote Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca:

    “I am shocked, shocked to find out that there is gambling going on in here.“

    I am glad, however, to finally see an honest discussion of the greater ramifications of the San Carlos Transit Village. There are several questions in addition to our seemingly provincial viewpoint (if you’re not the one being railroaded) that need answering.

    • Ask a SamTrans representative if it is now SamTrans policy to leverage money out of unused public land to offset skyrocketing finance losses in providing their reason for existence; public transit. How can a 99 year lease be viewed as anything other than a de-facto sale of said property? Is it the plan of SamTrans to now become a property company focusing on public housing? How do SamTrans and the City imagine this will do any more than perpetuate the model of inefficiency and unaccountability that SamTrans has become after more than 30 years since the voters approved its’ formation? Multiple competing bus companies don’t sound so bad any more.

    • Why is it that the property owner, the public, need not give permission for use of said property? Where is the accountability? If not the voting public, who exactly is SamTrans accountable to?

    The SCTV draft EIR states that:
    “While the proposed project would be a joint venture between Legacy Partners and SamTrans, no formal approval would be required from SamTrans.4”

    “4 Brian Fitzpatrick, SamTrans, communication with Lauren Mattern, M-Group, September 29, 2009.”

    • At a GESC Neighborhood Association meeting last May a Legacy Partners representative stated, with City Council Members in the audience, that the reason a smaller project was not feasible was that profits were needed to offset the cost of the Grand Boulevard in San Carlos, which they also had plans for with the City. Why had the city not disclosed this arrangement? How can the city claim there is not a strong incentive here? How can they claim impartiality when Legacy Partners and SamTrans both point to the Citys’ fingerprints all over the project from the get go? How can the City claim to be an impartial party in implementing CEQA?

    • How is it that nobody else sees the oxymoron that living shoe-horned between a railroad and the busiest street on the Peninsula is luxury housing, or housing of any quality for that matter? What other apartment development immediately adjacent to the Caltrain track has not devolved into blight? What other developments are there in such close proximity to the train tracks? Has anybody asked them how luxurious there living situation is?

    • Why aren’t projects that focus on services, goods and commuter convenience being considered by SamTrans instead of grabbing for the quick buck? If SamTrans and Caltrain would focus on those areas the greater public would be more open to additional subsidies for public transportation. Caltrain would then have the potential to become more than, as Robert Doty put it, “a rust stain” along the Peninsula.

    I don’t expect a public project of any kind to not lose money. I do, especially in these times, expect it to lose money as inefficiently as possible. I expect the project to benefit as many in the community as possible while taking away little of the community benefits we are fortunate enough to enjoy. I expect a government that is responsive to voter needs and respectful with how they spend our money. I expect to have to fight for these things against entrenched interests that seek the opposite.

    There is an election coming up on May 3rd for County Supervisor. Ask these questions of Gina Papan, Richard Holober, Dave Pine and Terry Nagel. Ask them when the cameras are turned on and don’t take “no comment” as an answer. Ask them of every candidate at every election and of every elected public official all the time.

  3. Mr. Fuller,

    One would think that you would be correct in your statement:

    “His position on both the SamTrans Board and the City of San Carlos should put him in a position to deal, cut the height of this building, and hammer out a proposal that would work. But to date, nothing has happened.”

    But this cuts to the heart of the issue, as a community we should be benefiting from Mr. Ahmad’s representation in both the city council and on the Caltrain board. Mr. Baker stated that in an earlier comment.

    You are correct in stating that Mr. Ahmad could be an advocate for San Carlos issues especially as they relate to anything rail related in San Carlos. He could have been bringing up our complaints and working towards some sort of compromise when we have expressed our concerns. He could have been driving alternatives included in the draft EIR that would have been more acceptable to the community. This would have been most helpful in creating a collaborative atmosphere on this project, instead we are faced with a situation where it is all or nothing. Legacy and Samtrans get everything they want and the community is ignored once again. I continue to be deeply concerned that our issues have been left out and no dialog has occurred to create a mutually beneficial project. I think it is time to start over, work with community involvement from the onset, and create a new set of plans for the parcel.

    As a result of conversations between yourself and Mr. Ahmad, and your conversations with me separately, I’ve edited the copy of the editorial and am willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt here. I think we have a legitimate difference in opinion on how this project has moved forward and I’m concerned that the lack of alternatives acceptable to the community in the draft EIR and the complete glossing over of significant impacts to our community in the EIR report has created a rift that as a community we need to solve. Mr. Ahmad has agreed to meet with us so lets take it from there and see if we can build something positive.

  4. I think we’ve really touched a nerve with this posting.

    As President of GESC, and not as representing the rest of the Board, I personally do not think Omar should resign from his positions. What I do feel, however, is that Omar should take a close look at the SCTV issue and figure out a way to address GESC grievances. His position on both the SamTrans Board and the City of San Carlos should put him in a position to deal, cut the height of this building, and hammer out a proposal that would work. But to date, nothing has happened. Omar, like the rest of the City, believe the time to get involved is after key EIR questions (most of which were posed by GESC) are answered. Only time will tell how that process unfolds.

    The difficult truth for me is that Omar and the rest of the SC City Council have not changed the height on this project one inch since we started fighting against this design 6 years ago (Omar hasn’t even been on the council this whole time). As a matter of fact, the project was once 48 feet and mysteriously grew to 54 feet in recent designs. This inefficacy by the City Council around GESC’s driving issue has led many of us to assume that some sort of cozy conspiracy is transpiring between the key players.

    I want to point out that I have extremely limited faith in the CEQA process that is being conducted around the SCTV Project and think that PBS&J should be taken off the job for grossly understating the impacts to the GESC neighborhood. I love the spirit of the CEQA rules, but believe that San Carlos has blatantly ignored this spirit throughout the entire process and this completely saddens me as GESC’s chief representative.

    The cozy relationship between EIR consultants, Legacy Partners, City Council, Planning Commission members, and SamTrans has created an environment where intelligent planning that includes community feedback has become impossible. The claims by Legacy Partners and the City of San Carlos that community feedback has been included are preposterous. When Jeff Byrd stood up at our GESC neighborhood meeting and told us “This Project will be 4 stories no matter what you do” created an adversarial environment that has not improved to this day. And the ombudsman they hired to reach out to our community and work with us on solutions has not been given any power to change this project. Even the Sierra Club architect who spent pro-bono time building a superior and greener project that would have fit into our neighborhood was totally rebuffed by the money-hungry, selfish Legacy development team.

    We have tried so many methods to reach out to all of the aforementioned groups and still not managed to change one meaningful thing about this monstrosity, least of which the gargantuan 54-foot height of it relative to our 60-year old, 12 foot tall homes across the street. Our very way of life in GESC Territory is at stake.

    With that said, for some reason, I still believe Mr. Ahmad and the rest of the City Council of San Carlos will do the right thing on this project. Andy Klein made me a campaign promise to me during a walk with the Transportation and Circulation Committee in GESC territory saying he would not let this project be approved without hosting serious negotiations with the GESC neighborhood, and I take him at his word. I don’t believe he said that just to get votes before he ended up running un-opposed.

    Finally, I would like to close by saying that I’m not surprised that members of the GESC Board have become radicalized and are calling for change. We are all extremely dubious of anything we hear from the City of San Carlos after over 60 years of neglect and mismanagement of our neighborhood. Our letters to the City have gone unanswered and generally unacknowledged for years, even though we take the time to follow process to the letter of the law to make sure our issues are professionally detailed to the City.

    Any positive speeches on the berm ignore that Old County Road has become the laughing stock of San Mateo County – a veritable walk of shame strewn with garbage and toxics. But in spite of all this rhetoric, I still remain an optimist about Omar Ahmad and the other key players who will decide this issue. They have shown some prudence already by ensuring that high speed rail’s impact on our neighborhood gets figured out first. They are doing their best to improve the finances of our City. City Staff have taken voluntary cuts to help us get out of our financial mess. There are a lot of good people on City Council and working for our City. It’s just a very difficult situation.

    In the end, I believe they will in the end do the right thing here and help us develop the right project for our neighborhood, if any project at all.

    Unfortunately, however, I’m in officially now in the minority as an optimist. And unless we soon hear from the key players and start to engage them on the SCTV issue, I too may lose the rest of my hope.

  5. I don’t necessarily disagree that dual memberships could cause conflicts of interest between the city/transit district aspects of the job. (Although on the surface it seems a conflict that would generally go to the city’s benefit as projects that benefit the city are promoted over ones that benefit the county as a whole.) There’s a problem in that the makeup of the SamTrans board (two county supes, a councilmember each from north, central and south county and four others appointed by those first five) is dictated by the CA Public Utilities Code. To change the board makeup would require the CA Legislature to pass a bill. And who’s the assemblyman who represents the bulk of San Mateo County? Jerry Hill, who served for many years on the SamTrans board while a supervisor. I’m not saying there’s an inherrant conflict of interest, but he’s probably not inclined to change the board makeup unless there’s a huge public cry to do so.

  6. If the requirement for serving on the Caltrain board is holding some sort of political position then that may be part of the problem in and of itself.

    The Caltrain board may benefit from having business and ridership representatives instead of, or in addition to, government officials and politicians. It is hard to imagine a scenario where there has been no dissent on any vote for the past three years given the difficult and unfortunate situation that Caltrain is facing.

    The Mercury News article was a real eye opener, and may help drive some change in how Caltrain conducts its business.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Putting aside Ahmad’s position on the berm or transit village, I’m a bit surprised by your saying he shouldn’t be on both boards. It shows some basic ignorance about San Mateo County’s transit leadership because Ahmad is on the SamTrans board (and thus the Caltrain one by extension) only BECAUSE he is a San Carlos councilmember. If he left the council, he’d also be required to leave SamTrans. I don’t know about San Carlos, but I’m sure that Redwood City or Menlo Park would love to have one of their councillors as the South County cities representative, making transit decisions that benefit their communities.

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