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By Diana Diamond

Caltrain grade crossings – changing horses in midstream

Uploaded: May 27, 2019

For months and months, Palo Alto officials have been talking about -- and then finally planning -- what kind of grade separations the city might create at four Caltrain crossings in town: a tunnel, a trench, a berm, or overhead tracks. Each concept is an expensive, complicated venture – the tunnel, the council finally decided was too expensive ($2 to $4 billion range) and just a couple of weeks ago was discarded.

City officials hired consultants (plural) to help them decide, they talked about grade separations at council meetings, held a series of public gatherings to determine resident preferences, et cetera. Last December was the council’s self-imposed deadline for a decision, but they missed that, and now this coming October is the new deadline.

Somewhat suddenly, Caltrain changed those proverbial horses in midstream. It announced last December that it has created a big new plan, and amid its electrification of all its trains and proposed expansion into downtown San Francisco, is Caltrain’s statement it will need four tracks instead of two in the northern part of Santa Clara County – most likely, in Palo Alto, and preferably at the Cal Ave station, or San Antonio, or maybe even the University Avenue station.

Now I have talked to a couple of council members and they don’t seem too upset about this horse change, perhaps because Caltrain officials have finally hinted that maybe they will work on a regional approach and help out a bit financially. Money does talk. But the number hinted at was $5 to $11 billion – for the entire Caltrain line from San Francisco to San Jose.

That’s a small drop in a big bucket; think about that $4 billion tunnel estimate for Palo Alto alone. But the idea of a regional approach is a great idea – and it should have happened years ago. But it didn’t, because Caltrain had declared grade separations were not its job; each city should decide what kind of grade separations it wants, if any, and each city should also pay for the cost.

And Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park have each worked separately, without any coordination so far, as to what happens if one city decides on a tunnel for its town and the next city want tracks high above. Those trains would have an impossible time coping with a rollercoaster railway line.

There are three big wrinkles in Caltrain’s new plan is its need for four tracks somewhere in north county (there are already four tracks at the Lawrence station in Sunnyvale). The first is the reason why four tracks are needed: to let high-speed rail trains quickly pass by Caltrain commuter trains. But will HSR ever come to fruition, particularly on the Peninsula? Voters approved the HSR plan in 2009, and a decade later less than 200 miles have been built, and they are near Bakersfield. HSR doesn’t have any money to build more, the feds want back the money it already gave to Caltrain, and I think its future is bleak, especially since it already has had big cost overruns. If no HSR, no need for four tracks.

The second wrinkle is Caltrain’s boastful claim of increased ridership. Daily ridership could soar from its current 62,000 level to 161,000 and maybe even 207,000 passengers by 2040, Caltrain claimed.

But Caltrain has been losing riders lately, and they are not sure why. They’ve been pointing figures at Uber. Of course, as this area grows, one can assume there will be more riders.

The third wrinkle is the funding – Caltrain doesn’t have the money now to pay cities for any grade separations, and while it’s a good idea and better power push for cities to join together to try to get funding, can the state afford to fund it? Maybe. And the feds? Of course, if the federal government wants to, but the Trump administration doesn’t want to, since the president doesn’t seem to like California very much – because we didn’t vote for him.

Of course Caltrain could ask residents to support a big tax increase to pay part of the cost of grade separations and four tracks, but it would need a two-thirds vote of approval and in early polling, the figures hover around 60 percent.

Eventually these problems will be solved, somehow. But it would seem that Caltrain shouldn’t have changed horses so late in the game, and the cities and Caltrain should have been working together years earlier. But that’s hindsight, isn’t it.