Caltrain's hopes ride on new rail compact
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 last 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 Hemminger 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. Hemminger 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."