News

Caltrain's hopes ride on new rail agreement

California High-Speed Rail Authority, MTC, consider contract that would fund electrification of Caltrain

Caltrain long-deferred dream of electrified tracks could finally become reality under a proposal between the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and several Bay Area transportation groups.

The agreement, which the MTC announced this week and which the various parties are scheduled to take up in the next two months, is one component of what rail authority officials referred to as the "new vision" for high-speed rail. That vision calls for the new rail system to share tracks with Caltrain on the Peninsula and for "early investment" of high-speed rail funds in the northern and southern segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line.

The proposed "memorandum of understanding," which the MTC board is scheduled to discuss on March 28, allocates $1.5 billion in funding for electrification and advance-signal-system elements of the blended system, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger wrote in a memo to the board.

"The sustained level of support for the electrification project reflects the critical nature of this project as it will usher in modern passenger rail service on the Peninsula that will lead to cost savings, faster service, operational efficiencies, quieter trains and fewer emissions," Mr. Heminger wrote. "Electrification of the corridor will also pave the way for a future when California's high-speed trains can operate from downtown San Francisco to the greater Los Angeles basin."

About half of the funding for electrification would come from Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure state voters approved in 2008 for the high-speed-rail system. The proposed funding plan calls for about $700 million to come from state funds. Caltrain would be expected to contribute close to $200 million and two regional agencies, including the MTC and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, would chip in another $31 million. The rest of the funding, roughly $500 million, is expected to come from federal sources.

Caltrain has long promoted electrification as a critical component to increasing ridership and becoming financially sustainable. The agency is facing structural budget deficits and has been relying on one-time funding sources over the past two years to avoid having to dramatically cut services. Mike Scanlon, executive director of Caltrain, called electrification an "essential improvement that is critical to the future of the system."

"This is an enormous step forward that prioritizes these improvements and delivers early benefits to the Caltrain system, its riders and surrounding communities," Mr. Scanlon said in a statement.

But even under the best-case scenario, Caltrain's long-awaited electrification project wouldn't be implemented until at least 2018. Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's manager of government affairs, said that once the funds for the project come in, it would take about six years to complete the electrification. He also noted that future investments would be required to make the Caltrain corridor compatible with the high-speed rail system.

Before anything happens, however, the state Legislature would have to approve the rail authority's and the transportation agencies' request for bond funding, which is far from a sure thing. The project has been heavily criticized in Sacramento, with Republicans in the state Capitol overwhelmingly opposing it.

Some cities on the Peninsula have also been viewing the new agreement with skepticism. Members of the Palo Alto City Council, which last year officially adopted a position calling for termination of the high-speed rail project, discussed the proposed document Thursday morning and expressed concern about the speed with which the agencies are proceeding with the agreement.

Mr. Murphy said Caltrain strongly supports the memorandum of understanding and its proposal to electrify the corridor. "This is a huge opportunity for Caltrain to leverage the resources we have at the local and regional level for significant statewide resources that would help make this project happen," he said.

The proposed agreement involves the rail authority, the MTC, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (which operates Caltrain), the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, San Francisco, San Jose and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

The proposal specifies that the high-speed rail system will rely on the "blended approach" -- using the existing Caltrain right-of-way along the Peninsula -- as opposed to the rail authority's original but controversial four-track design.

The "blended approach" was first proposed a year ago by three Peninsula legislators, state Sen. Joe Simitian, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park.

Though the rail authority had initially resisted the proposal to run high-speed rail and Caltrain on the same tracks, the agency has since embraced the proposal. At a public hearing in Mountain View recently, the rail authority's board Chair Dan Richard and board member Jim Hartnett said the agency's soon-to-be-released business plan will focus on the blended approach, which Mr. Richard said would bring down the cost of the $98.5 billion project.

Mr. Gordon and Ms. Eshoo both released statements March 22 applauding the rail authority and the various transportation agencies for reaching an agreement to electrify Caltrain.

"The $1.5 billion investment detailed in the MOU will drastically improve service time for the hundreds of thousands of Caltrain commuters, reduce emissions from existing diesel engines, and put in place a plan ensuring the use of the existing Caltrain right-of-way for the potential future of high-speed rail operations," Mr. Gordon said in a statement.

Ms. Eshoo also expressed enthusiasm about the new proposal and said that modernizing Caltrain "has and will continue to be one of my highest priorities for our region."

"It is the spine of our transportation system and it must be brought into the 21st century," she said in a statement. "Now the regional agreement to fully fund the electrification of Caltrain and positive train control will make this a reality."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Here's their argument. Every year, Caltrain has projected a "fiscal emergency." They say that they are running out of funds and can't cover their operating expenses. Indeed, in some years, like last year, they declare that they are approaching bankruptcy.

Nonetheless, year after year, they somehow manage to bail themselves out.

Now we hear (actually we've been hearing about it for over a decade) that the solution to all their financial problems are an electrified rail-line. Although the trains won't go any faster, they will start and stop faster. Fasten your seatbelts, Caltrain customers!!

And that will increase the run-time from SF to SJ by ten minutes. And that, in turn will bring all those potential transit riders, now using their cars, to ride the train.

They tell us that the costs for electrification will be around $1.5 billion. Rest assured that this will not be the final cost. It will at least double. And what have we, the taxpayers, bought for all this money besides that whizzy electric train for Christmas? Not much.

And, none of this is the real issue, which is that electrification is the Trojan Horse for bringing HSR to the Caltrain corridor. Blended system? Sure, for the time being.

This is all too sneaky for words. Can you for a minute believe that HSR will be satisfied with sharing the current two tracks, with no grade separations, and without four tracks to make passing possible? HSR is not stopping at every Caltrain station; without four tracks, HSR is not possible; it will be simply a second Caltrain commuter train.

Once electrified, the demand for full grade separations will be relentless. The four track solution will be -- wait for it -- elevated viaducts, which solve the grade crossing problem.
Isn't that what all the cities have opposed?

We are being scammed and most of us don't even know it yet.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2012 at 8:04 am

Mr Engel, have you not breathed enough train soot and suffered enough hearing loss to welcome electrification? What will it take for you to get on board with progress?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Thrush
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Electrification is a much better investment than the billions we roll into expanding 101. That's the real scam.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 25, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Martin, you ask a good set of questions. The train soot will indeed be relocated elsewhere; to the site of the oil and coal fired power plants generating the necessary electricity. And, I attribute my hearing loss more to old age than to the trains. Being a city boy, I've always lived with the white noise of traffic outside.

It's not that I oppose electrification per se. I'm arguing that it's really costly and not necessary. There is enormous progress in power sources development for rail service, including highly fuel-efficient diesel-electric, self-powered commuter vehicles, used elsewhere in the world.

And, I firmly believe that electrification, which will be labelled as essential for high-speed rail to be funding eligible, is indeed, as I have said, the Trojan Horse for bringing high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor. Electrification will endorse HSR on the Caltrain corridor and in California.

If Caltrain agreed to sever its ties with high-speed rail and assure us that high-speed rail will not appear on the corridor, in exchange I would support electrification, even though I believe that it will provide none of the benefits promised by Caltrain.

Having been a high-speed rail opponent for nearly a decade, I find Caltrain discussions a distraction, but unfortunately necessary in the light of their highly ambiguous relationship.


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