Caltrain wants high-speed rail to start locally

Agency asks High-Speed Rail Authority to refocus its environmental review on a Peninsula 'initial operating segment' of overall system

Caltrain has joined a growing swell of Peninsula critics of California's proposed high-speed-rail system.

But Caltrain isn't opposing the system; it wants it to start first on the Peninsula. It is calling for the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to take a fresh approach to designing the controversial, 800-mile system, currently estimated at $43 billion.

Caltrain believes that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible" through communities "where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed," Caltrain CEO Michael Scanlon said in a Sept. 1 letter to rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark.

Scanlon urged the authority to "refocus" its environmental-review process for the project, Caltrain's chief spokesman Mark Simon told the Palo Alto City Council Monday night in presenting the letter officially to the council.

Scanlon specifically requested that the authority consider building an "initial operating segment" of the rail line on the Peninsula. The authority's environmental review has thus far only considered a fully built-out system between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"We remain concerned that all of the alternatives presented as a part of the CHSRA environmental review contemplate only the full-build-out system." Scanlon wrote.

"To date, the CHSRA environmental review has not included analysis of how project construction could be phased or how a phased approach could result in an initial operating segment.

"Such a segment could be cleared for construction to modernize and electrify the corridor and accommodate sufficient capacity for initial high-speed and Caltrain service levels," Scanlon wrote.

Caltrain's appeal to the authority to change its environmental-review process cites the growing concern in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula about the state's process for building the system.

In Palo Alto, a council committee has adopted a "no confidence" stance on the project and city officials have scheduled a meeting for Sept. 20 to discuss a possible lawsuit against the authority for failing to fulfill California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements.

Caltrain's relationship with the authority has been more collegial, despite Caltrain asserting itself last May in a bid for a share of federal stimulus funds in the face of opposition to the move by the authority. Caltrain owns the Peninsula right-of-way that the authority plans to use for the new system and has been working with the authority on its design.

The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2009 stating that "it is the intention of the parties to incorporate high speed rail in the Caltrain rail corridor on a phased basis."

Scanlon also alluded to the authority's recently released Alternative Analysis, which evaluates possible design options for the rail line. The document essentially eliminated the locally popular deep-tunnel and covered-trench options on the Peninsula and identifies aerial, at-grade and open-trench designs as the most viable approaches.

Scanlon wrote that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible through a number of communities where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed."

The best way to achieve these acceptable alternatives and to defer the "more controversial elements of the full build out" is to adopt a phased approach to the 800-mile system, he wrote.

"We believe these options are available," Simon told the council. "They're viable and we're advocating with the HSR that they proceed and refocus their environmental report so they reflect these options as still viable."

Simon presented Scanlon's letter at a lengthy council meeting that featured a detailed staff presentation and comments from skeptical residents and council members, several of whom told Simon they appreciate Caltrain's position.

Rob Braulik, the city's project manager for high-speed rail, shared the latest staff analyses, which indicated that the rail authority's proposal to reduce lanes on Alma Street in Palo Alto would have "significant impacts" on northbound and southbound traffic along the busy artery.

Staff's traffic analysis also showed that if the rail authority elects not to grade-separate the tracks and to run the new trains along the two existing Caltrain tracks, local drivers seeking to cross the tracks would have to wait for up to 10 minutes before crossing.

"People will be sitting at these crossings for an indeterminable number of time," Braulik said.

He said much of the data coming from the authority is murky or inconsistent, which makes the task of analyzing the system's impacts particularly tricky. The city is in the process of hiring consultants to analyze the impact of the system on property values along and near the Caltrain corridor.

Council members, meanwhile, continued to express sometimes harsh skepticism about the project.

Mayor Pat Burt accused the authority of "strategic misrepresentation of the project," pointing to van Ark's recent assertion that the new system would increase property values along its segments. He also challenged the authority's assertion that its ridership numbers are valid despite a critical independent review from the Institute of Transportation Studies in the University of California, Berkeley -- commissioned by the state Legislature.

Burt, a member of the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said he is more than skeptical about the project.

"Our skepticism is based on what we believe to be realism," Burt said. "There are very prominent academics who have studied mega-transportation projects throughout the world and what they found -- what we are experiencing now-- is a pattern: the projects are grossly understated in capital costs and grossly overstated in projections of ridership.

"You can't build, within their budget, anything close to what this community thinks is acceptable."

The council plans to continue its discussion and possibly vote on the High-Speed Rail Committee's "no confidence" resolution at its next meeting Sept. 20.

The council is also scheduled to hold a closed session at the end of the meeting to determine whether the city should sue the authority.

The Menlo Park City Council may follow in Palo Alto's footsteps. Mayor Rich Cline said he plans to ask the council at tonight's (Sept. 14) meeting to put consideration of a "no confidence" vote on next week's agenda.

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Like this comment
Posted by alice Hansen
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 12:12 pm

How can air quality be improved when cars must wait 10 minutes to cross the railroad?

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 14, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Good Question, Alice.

Answer:Drive less. Drive hybrids and electrics. Instead of improving traffic flow, constrain it.
Discourage driving by instituting traffic management that favors walking and biking over driving. Encourage work-at-home, teleconferencing, etc. And, if all else fails, shut your engine off for ten minutes.

Finally, if you are a grade separation advocate, please understand the environmental impact of construction. That information is usually overlooked by advocates for development.
It's huge. It takes generations to amortize. Building things is very "dirty."

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Now, about Caltrain wanting CHSRA to start on the Peninsula. That's no surprise. They have been lusting for HSR's build-out (electrification and grade separations) on the Caltrain corridor for years. They are happy to postpone the major construction if they can bring HSR to the corridor, even on two tracks. That's the foot in the door. They can always do the major grade separation construction later and increase to the anticipated four tracks. It will be their 'camel's nose in the tent.'

Its time for everybody to be highly skeptical of Caltrain/CHSRA promises. Most of us are smart enough not to believe what they tell us on TV commercials. Well, this is no different.
They are trying to sell us something that we don't want and will be very harmful to us.
How do they do that? By lying.

What do we do about it? Listen to Nancy Reagan, and

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Agree completely with Engel.
Actually, I do not believe anyone who has been opposing this inevitable
building of the HSR.
Engel has the attitude which is needed to keep out all of the people on the Peninsula who have caused any setbacks when all it took was an ounce of imagination that this was going to be a GO.
The lack of perception makes people on the Peninsula like the woman who is bitching about waiting 10 minutes as the 1st negative voice.
Engel's response is right on.
Shanghai was splendid and the Asians very cooperative.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 15, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Palo Alto had a terrific council meeting on the issue on Monday (9-13-2010)

Mark Simon from CalTrain presented the surprise letters, indicating a new position being advocated by CalTrain.

These letters can be viewed at:

Web Link

Mayor Burt did an outstanding job of getting to the facts. Also Larry Klein and others.

What appears to be happening here, is CalTrain is very fearful of losing out on getting this segment built any time soon, and are trying their bast to somehow qualify for funds from the Federal Rail Administration. The problem is these funds are dedicated to High Speed Rail, an inter-city rail project and not for a commuter rail system, such as CalTrain. This was clearly explained by the Authority's CEO, van Ark in a meeting in August.

So CalTrain is going back to its base,the local communities on the peninsula, trying to be much more in concert with these Cities views, rather than just parrot the Authority's propaganda.

The key position change is CalTrain is now saying that 2 tracks should suffice for the immediate future. They now say don't worry about HSR needing to run 10 trains each way during peak hours and thereby needing 4 tracks. Three to 4 trains per hour should suffice. A major shift in position.

Mayor Burt also made a big effort to get everyone to realize that this segment is not a 5 billion segment, but a 10 billion segment, and that the Authority should not be allowed to come through our communities in the cheapest way possible.

What indeed should be the next stop is to have CalTrain tell the Authority to take their tracks elsewhere.

BTW, this part of the meeting starts at about 1 hour 20 minutes into the archived video segment of the meeting, which is on the Palo Alto webcast site.

Like this comment
Posted by TrainIsComing
a resident of another community
on Sep 24, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Caltrain wants to electrify so that it can increase the number of trains it can run from 5 an hour to 6 an hour to improve profitability. Without grade separation that will increase the wait times for local drivers. But Rob Braulik says that the proposal to temporarily run tracks on Alma Street so that Caltrain can run during construction would have "significant impacts". Construction always causes traffic impacts but benefits of grade separation are worth the cost of temporary reduction of lanes.

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

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