Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said his agency entered into a partnership with the California High-Speed Rail Authority in order to help Caltrain achieve the goal of electrifying its system, which is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the popular but cash-strapped commuter service.
But Caltrain has been "rethinking our relationship with high-speed rail" since the rail authority approved the plan to start construction of the line in the Central Valley — a plan that's prompted many legislators, watchdogs and concerned citizens to wonder whether the Peninsula segment will ever get built.
The arrangement between the state authority and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which governs Caltrain, seemed ideal in 2004, four years before California voters approved a $9 billion bond for the new rail line. The authority needed Caltrain's right-of-way to make the system work, and Caltrain needed help with electrification. But with high-speed rail facing financial challenges, as well as increasing skepticism from Peninsula residents, Caltrain is giving this partnership a second thought.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, who sits on Caltrain's governing board, hosted the meeting in Palo Alto City Hall to update the community about Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and its efforts to electrify the financially troubled train system.
Several audience members, however, questioned Caltrain's partnership with the rail authority and encouraged the Joint Powers Board to take a more assertive stance. Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack said Caltrain should have a greater say.
Kniss, a former Palo Alto mayor, said the relationship between the agencies has always been tentative and subject to changes.
"It's like many arrangements," Kniss said. "I'd call it, maybe they were in the engagement phase.
"Caltrain got the ring but never got a wedding band."
Some on the Peninsula still hope the authority and Caltrain can work together. Last month, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, proposed a plan in which high-speed rail would use the electrified Caltrain system on the Peninsula.
The plan met a cool reception at the most recent meeting of the rail authority's board of directors. Several members, including board Chair Curt Pringle, suggested that the proposal could be little more than an attempt by Peninsula legislators to take money from the high-speed rail and use it for Caltrain's needs.
For Caltrain, the uncertainty over the Peninsula segment means it has to look for other ways to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to electrify the system. The three partnering agencies that largely fund Caltrain — the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority — have already set aside $269 million for the project and expect to receive about $350 million more in grants. Even so, Caltrain is still looking for about $640 million to make electrification possible, said Marian Lee, Caltrain's executive officer for planning and development.
The capital project is one of two major funding challenges the agency is wrestling with. Caltrain, which has no permanent, dedicated funding sources, is facing a structural budget gap of about $30 million. The shortfall can be attributed largely to decreases in voluntary contributions from the three partner agencies that support the commuter service.
Simon and Kniss said Tuesday that switching Caltrain from diesel to electricity would reduce emissions by 90 percent as well as cut down noise. The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" — a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.
Caltrain has already completed a draft Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project and hopes to certify the state-mandated document this summer.