Caltrain asserts itself in race for federal funds

California High-Speed Rail Authority needs Caltrain's right of way for the Peninsula segment but lags in approvals, threatening early funding

The two agencies responsible for building the Peninsula section of the high-speed-rail system now find themselves in a competitive race for federal-stimulus funds, Caltrain's chief spokesman told the Palo Alto City Council Monday night.

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, asked the council to support Caltrain's proposed amendments to Senate Bill 965, a bill that governs expenditure of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

Simon said Caltrain hopes the amendments would allow it to obtain some of this federal money and, in doing so, fund rail improvements on the Peninsula.

"Part of the concern is if we don't speak up for this money now it will go to another segment somewhere else in the state," Simon told the council.

Simon said he expects the rail authority, which is banking on the federal funds, to oppose the Caltrain amendments.

Caltrain and the rail authority are both seeking to secure major portions of the $2.25 billion the federal government allotted to California in January for high-speed rail. The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding last year to work together on the Peninsula segment of the controversial high-speed-rail line, which has attracted waves of opposition in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula.

The rail authority has yet to complete the required environmental analysis for the Bay Area segment of the line and could lose the federal grant if the analysis isn't completed by November 2011.

Caltrain's project, by contrast, has already undergone the required reviews and could be implemented as soon as the cash-strapped agency finds the $1.5 billion required to fund it.

Under the rail authority's current plan, the new high-speed-rail line would share the Caltrain corridor with Caltrain on San Francisco-to-San Jose segment. The authority has not yet determined how these two systems would share the corridor, which is owned by Caltrain.

The race for federal funds could create a fissure between Caltrain and the rail authority, the two agencies that united last year to form the Peninsula Rail Program.

"It's a true partnership, which means you don't always get along," Simon said. "You indicate things you disagree over and, hopefully, you can work these out and move forward."

He said Caltrain is not looking to abandon its partnership with the rail authority, but said the agency would only be willing to share its right-of-way if the new rail line doesn't hinder existing rail service. He said Caltrain partnered with the authority in hopes of finding a way to pay for the electrification process.

"When the partnership doesn't work for us, we're prepared to assert our ownership rights of the right of way," Simon said.

The rail authority has assumed in its business plan that the entire federal amount would be used to fund voter-approved high-speed-rail project -- an 800-mile system between San Francisco and Los Angeles that the authority plans to have in place by 2020. The rail authority estimates the project to cost about $43 billion and, according to its most recent business plan, is banking on about $17 billion in federal grants for the project.

But on Monday night, Simon told the council that Caltrain hopes to use the federal funds for its own project -- the long-planned electrification of the Caltrain -- and asked the council to support Caltrain's bid for federal funds.

If delays in the Bay Area high-speed-rail segment continue and the first round of federal funding is reallocated elsewhere, the likeliest destination could be the Anaheim segment of the line, which has made the furthest progress toward environmental clearance. It doesn't hurt that Curt Pringle, the chairman of the rail authority's board of directors, is the Anaheim mayor, Simon said.

Simon's presentation came at a time when the council was discussing the revised "guiding principles" for its High-Speed Rail Committee. The principles, which the council adopted unanimously, reinforce Palo Alto's opposition to elevated high-speed-rail alignment. They also allege that the rail authority's ridership study "contains dubious and erroneous assumptions" and that its pending environmental review for the Central Valley-to-San Francisco segment is "fatally flawed."

Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa praised the new guiding principles as a document that "puts a stake in the ground" and clearly establishes Palo Alto's position on major high-speed-rail issues. The new principles also state that Palo Alto "strongly supports" Caltrain and its electrification project, "independent of high-speed rail."

The council generally expressed support for Caltrain's proposed legislative amendments and agreed to discuss the issue further and, if needed, pass a resolution supporting Caltrain's effort.

The council's High-Speed Rail Committee is scheduled to discuss Caltrain's amendments to SB 965 at its meeting Thursday morning. The full council would vote on the proposed resolution at its May 24 meeting.

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Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 20, 2010 at 11:09 am

A senior Caltrain executive who asked to remain anonymous has said that it is Caltrain who is the host/owner, and the CHSRA is the guest/tenant in this relationship. I consider that bluffing. Also huffing and puffing. If Caltrain is about to go belly-up without HSR's largesse for electrification and grade-separations, then Caltrain's posturing about being the "host" is unconvincing.

1. The MOU between the two organizations, Caltrain and the CHSRA, isn't worth the paper it's written on, as they say in the movies. It's PR, nothing more. They will agree about everything until and unless they disagree.

2. Caltrain is bluffing about folding up without HSR on its corridor. (Or, should I say, OUR corridor). That's a pathetic attempt to win the support of their ridership and all the urban mass transit supporters.

3. Caltrain, instead of having gotten its operating budget in order, has been desperately seeking capital development opportunities. Those NEVER improve the bottom line in a deficit operation such as, say, Amtrak or in this case, Caltrain.

4. The electrification issue is hugely ambiguous. Who is paying for what? Who will get to use it? When will they start? Is a 6 year old EIS/EIR draft appropriate for certification? Will the system be compatible for both rail operators or only Caltrain? Will they start prior to HSR completion of its project-level EIS/EIR?

5. Caltrain's claim that electrification will bail them out of at least a major part of their structural deficit is like saying that painting the house will stop the rot in the foundation.

6. How do you spell "shell-game?"

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 20, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Wow. Martin should volunteer his expertise by attending the public meetings for public comment and leadership skills instead of getting info second hand and sharp shooting the process. Help the process, help OUR corridor.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 20, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Concerned states:"Martin should volunteer his expertise by attending the public meetings for public comment and leadership skills instead of getting info second hand and sharp shooting the process. Help the process, help OUR corridor. "

Martin has probably attended MORE public meetings on these issues than all of the rest of us combined - as you would know if you had been at any of them.

Get your facts straight before you sound off about someone else.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 20, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Trying to silence the free speech of those in disagreement is a tactic of 1940's Eastern Europe and the plebian retired.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike McPherson
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 21, 2010 at 8:53 am

Martin has been attending, and speaking out, at public meetings for years, up and down the Peninsula and in Sacramento. His positions are further substantiated by many written statements.

In my opinion, the taxpayers of the State of California, as well as the residents of the Peninsula, owe Martin a debt of gratitude for the time and expertise he has invested in exposing the flawed business plans and unrealistic assumptions (to put it mildly) of the CHSRA .

Like this comment
Posted by Richard Trevithick
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 21, 2010 at 9:55 am

Concerned, are you suggesting that Martin, an individual who is trying to educate us all (and has done a bang-up job of it, by the way) is acting to suppress free speech and discussion? Or are you accusing the CHSRA, who spent $9 million on a PR firm to influence public discourse, of trying to exert undue influence?

I agree with Mike: we owe Martin for his tireless dedication in the face of many obstacles. Unfortunately, it appears that the powers-that-be will insist on subjecting HSR to a slow and painful death rather than mercifully putting it out of its misery.

Like this comment
Posted by Al Neiman
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Caltrain electrification WILL save millions annually. Current Caltrain locomotives date from the mid-1980's and do NOT meet current equipment diesel emission standards, not to mention noise capabilities. Do you buy new diesel locomotives or spend a million plus each to retrofit the old ones and continue to pay the high and perhaps rising diesel costs? Apparently the Caltrain strategy is to make the old equipment last until they can electrify which seems smart.

Trackside residents, who are well represented by the Caltrain and HSR critics writing in to the Almanac , apparently want to continue breathing the diesel emissions of 25 year old equipment and suffer the roaring noise they produce. Good Luck!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Alice
a resident of another community
on May 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Thank you, Martin Engel, for your ongoing time and effort on our behalf. I live 30 miles from the tracks but this project affects all of California. Keep up the good work.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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