Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 21, 2010

Palo Alto backs Caltrain bid for federal funds

Caltrain hopes to use high-speed-rail funds for parts of its electrification project

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto will get behind Caltrain's effort to secure federal-stimulus funds for its long-anticipated electrification project, a City Council committee decided Thursday morning.

The council's High-Speed Rail Committee voted unanimously to support, in concept, amendments proposed by Caltrain for state Senate Bill 965, which governs how California will spend the $2.25 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that the federal government allocated for high-speed rail in January.

The language proposed by Caltrain would enable the federal money to be used for certain portions of Caltrain's $1.5 billion electrification project or other projects that would benefit high-speed rail. The Caltrain project, which has been in the works for more than a decade, is designed to improve existing train service and, at the same time, provide direct benefit for the future high-speed rail system. Under current plans, the system would be built by 2020 and would stretch along the Caltrain corridor as it passes from San Francisco to San Jose.

While the high-speed rail project has generated waves of opposition and concern in Palo Alto and around the state, the electrification project has been popular in Caltrain's service area. Steve Emslie, Palo Alto's deputy city manager, called the Caltrain project "incredibly desirable" for the city and the Peninsula and a "high priority for an incredible amount of time.

"Up until the dawning of high-speed rail, there has been no funding set aside," Emslie told the committee Thursday. "This is the first real money that can start to address the work for electrification of Caltrain."

Councilman Larry Klein said the city has "long been in favor of electrification of Caltrain." Mayor Pat Burt suggested adding more language to the legislation to ensure that if Caltrain receives the federal funding, those funds would continue even if the High-Speed Rail Authority changes the alignment of the rail system or fails to complete the project. The committee unanimously adopted his suggestion.

Caltrain's proposed amendments would also ensure that the federal-stimulus funds could be used on the Peninsula even if the rail authority fails to get environmental clearance for its San Francisco-to-San Jose segment by November 2011, as is legally required. If the rail authority doesn't meet this deadline, the money would likely be used on a different segment of the 800-mile line.

Caltrain hopes the federal funds would be used to pay for four projects that received environmental clearance and are now "shovel ready": positive-train-control signals to prevent collisions; electrification work on the 4th Street and King Street station in San Francisco; grade-separation work in San Bruno; and wayside improvements such as transfer stations.

The projects would be compatible with the high-speed-rail project, which California voters approved in 2008, but would not preclude or predetermine any particular design alignments for the high-speed-rail line, Caltrain's Executive Officer for Public Affairs Mark Simon told the council Monday night. Still, he said he expects the rail authority to oppose the legislative amendments offered by Caltrain.

The two rail agencies signed a memorandum of understanding last year to collaborate on the Peninsula segment of the high-speed-rail line, which is currently projected to cost about $43 billion. They have since formed a partnership, the Peninsula Rail Program, which is charged with developing the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment.

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

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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