Councilmember Jeff Gee beat other elected officials from nearby Peninsula cities, including Menlo Park Mayor Pro Tem Kirsten Keith, for a spot on the SamTrans Board of Directors.
Gee will take the position that was left vacant after former San Carlos Mayor Omar Ahmad died suddenly of a heart attack May 10.
Gee was picked for the position Friday by a group of elected officials representing the 20 towns and cities spanning the Peninsula that are included in the San Mateo County Council of Cities.
Keith and East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero had also expressed interest in the vacant position.
Gee joins the board during a tumultuous time for local public transportation agencies, as many cities and counties are faced with cutting services in an attempt to cope with cash-strapped budgets.
Local public transportation agencies and officials are further burdened by the financial woes of Caltrain, which earlier this year announced a fiscal emergency and bandied about the possibility of reducing the amount of trains in circulation, or closing train stations in order to cut costs.
Furthermore, the elected officials in local communities must be prepared to engage in ongoing discussions about High-Speed Rail coming through the Peninsula.
But despite the seemingly daunting tasks he is faced with, Gee said he is prepared for the challenge. As a child, Gee’s father worked as an engineer for SamTrans as the transportation route was going through initial stages of planning for construction.
He said he recalls seeing blueprint plans for the route sprawled across his kitchen table years ago. Now he’s about to join the table that will decide the direction the agency will take in the future.
But Gee acknowledges the irony of now having an opportunity to map the future of his father’s work.
“It is an honor to have it come full circle,” said Gee.
Gee said the extent to which SamTrans will be able to offer services to San Mateo County residents will hinge largely on whether voters are willing to pay a tax that would go to save Caltrain.
As the rail system has fallen on dire financial straits, both SamTrans and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have increased contributions in an effort to keep Caltrain running, said Gee.
Gee said routes to some isolated neighborhoods across the county, such as those near the coast, have suffered a reduction in the amount of busses stopping in their neighborhood.
Such service cuts can be directly attributed to the increased contributions SamTrans is making to Caltrain, said Gee. And he said that runs contrary to the purpose and responsibilities that SamTrans has to county residents.
“When we birthed SamTrans for the county, it wasn’t to run a train. It was to provide services to residents in the county,” said Gee.
He said he would be in favor of a tax that would go to support Caltrain, which is the only local public transportation agency lacking a dedicated funding source.
Gee said he will work to increase collaboration and efficiency between all existing public transportation agencies on the Peninsula. And that should he succeed, the city and residents of Redwood City would benefit.
He said that increased reliability and collaboration between agencies such as SamTrans and Caltrain would make Redwood City a more attractive destination for businesses wishing to move into the city.
As well, it would move the city closer to achieving a goal set by the City Council that would make Redwood City more friendly to those who favor alternative means of transportation such as walking or biking to driving a car.
He said Redwood City residents are beginning to make different decisions related to transportation than the generations before did.
“There is a change going on in our community,” he said, citing people who elect to move into higher density housing near transit centers as opposed to out in the suburbs, which demands more driving.
But Gee said residents will be faced with even more difficult decisions soon, as it pertains to a High-Speed Rail line coming through the Peninsula.
Gee, who is in favor of High-Speed Rail, said it is in the best interest of the greater community to begin discussions regarding how people envision the future of the Peninsula. And he advocated for communities throughout the region to begin such talks soon.
If those discussions and pro-active behaviors don’t start soon, Gee fears the fate of the region may fall in the hands of outside parties.
“We have to have a vision first. Or else, someone will tell us what the solution will be, whether we like it or not,” he said.
– Reprinted with permission by Stacie Chan, Editor, Redwood City Patch