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December 07, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Guest Opinion: 'Caltrain Metro East' -- a better transit plan than BART-to-San Jose Guest Opinion: 'Caltrain Metro East' -- a better transit plan than BART-to-San Jose (December 07, 2005)

by Margaret Okuzumi

The future of our valley's public transit is at a crossroads -- with a key decision-point looming Feb. 2.

Unhappy Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials have been forced to admit that $5 billion in county sales taxes that will be collected starting next April won't be enough to build all transit projects voters were promised in 2000's Measure A.

Now VTA officials are haggling over a plan to go back to the voters to ask for more money -- to build just a portion of the projects promised in Measure A. Rather than throw good money after bad, the time has come for Palo Alto to demand a better plan -- one that will build the rail and bus network that our region needs -- without a new tax.

The 800-pound gorilla in all of VTA's current scenarios for Palo Alto is the BART extension to San Jose from Warm Springs in Fremont.

Even if VTA got voters to approve an additional $2.5 billion in sales taxes to go to transportation in the next 30 years, as long as BART is in the mix the question is: What is Palo Alto and the North County willing to give up?

Shall North County communities give up revenues for repaving roads? Or even more bus service than has already been lost? Are they willing to give up Caltrain electrification and other Caltrain service improvements? Or promised funds to rebuild the Palo Alto station?

Perhaps it is all of the above -- for as long as BART is in the mix it could easily devour monies needed for other transit projects. BART's estimated price tag has already increased by $500 million in the last few years, to $4.7 billion, not including more than a billion in financing costs. The BART project requires VTA to borrow such a massive sum of money that it would have to pay bond holders more than a thousand million dollars in interest instead of using that money to build real transit projects.

And the ballooning cost estimates may not be the end.

The BART to SFO/Millbrae extension in San Mateo County went 30 percent over budget. Once a big hole in the ground is dug, there is no turning back. Today the county transit agency is struggling under the financial burden and has substantially reduced both bus and BART service.

In Santa Clara County, a similar size overrun would swallow up funds needed for other transit projects in this county for a generation, even with a tax increase.

Most transit agencies would be overjoyed to have five thousand million dollars to spend -- which VTA already has. But this windfall won't make a dent in traffic unless VTA spends the money efficiently to provide direct relief to the whole county, not just San Jose.

Thankfully, we don't have to build BART in order to create quality rail service to the East Bay.

We can build rail the way people in Chicago, New Jersey and France have done -- with standard-gauge tracks and off-the-shelf components. For less than half the cost of the BART project, we could expand Caltrain's Baby Bullet-style service to the East Bay and to San Jose Airport.

The accompanying map shows how a new line, Caltrain Metro East, could be built in lieu of the BART project. Caltrain Metro East connects the planned Dumbarton rail line with the public right-of-way already purchased for the BART extension to San Jose. It would have a station stop next to the terminals at San Jose airport instead of requiring people to transfer to a $248 million people mover to reach the terminals (as BART would).

A short BART extension within Fremont would connect Caltrain Metro East and BART. Caltrain Metro East would create new corridors for the Altamont Commuter Express trains, allowing through-service to Stockton or even Modesto and beyond. Caltrain Metro East would also connect to the popular Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento.

The cost to construct Caltrain Metro East from Fremont to San Jose on structures completely separated from roads and car traffic (grade-separated) is about $1.5 billion, less than a third of the cost of the BART extension. Caltrain Metro East has the potential to enable Central Valley commuters to reach Palo Alto more quickly by rail than by driving. It does this by providing faster trains and a more direct route than would be provided by the BART extension.

Best of all, Caltrain Metro East allows VTA to have enough funds to fulfill its other transit promises to Palo Alto, as specified in 2000 Measure A. These include Caltrain electrification, more Caltrain service along the Peninsula and to Gilroy, more bus service, and more transit for seniors and the disabled.

This plan can become reality -- if we ask for it. If you agree that Caltrain Metro East is a good idea, please contact Supervisor Liz Kniss, your city council members and the VTA board to express your support. On Feb. 2, 2006, they will be voting on the future of our county's transit. Let them know you support a plan to create rail transit that is better than BART, without a new tax.

Margaret Okuzumi is executive director of the Palo Alto-based nonprofit BayRail Alliance and serves on the VTA and MTC Citizen Advisory Committees. More information on the proposal can be found at www.bayrailalliance.org. She can be e-mailed at margaret@bayrailalliance.org.




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