Guest opinion: Rail funds could give Caltrain a chance to electrify on two tracks
Last spring, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Joe Simitian, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon put forth a vision to implement a "blended system" for Caltrain enabling high-speed trains to operate on two Caltrain tracks. The proposal came after the High-Speed Rail Authority's original proposal for a four-track system was widely rejected on the Peninsula as expensive, disruptive for our historic downtowns and walkable neighborhoods, and excessive for likely rider demand.
Then the rail authority's Peer Review Group began to strongly recommend early funding for Northern and Southern California, rather than starting the project with just one segment in the Central Valley. The blended system could serve more people quickly and reduce the state's financial risk, authority officials said.
Against all odds and thanks to the hard work of many, this blended and "early" implementation plan is today gaining significant momentum. We believe that the emerging consensus is good for the Peninsula cities if key conditions and a clear roadmap for moving ahead are part of the package.
One reason for optimism is that after the blended system was proposed, Caltrain took over the process of defining and analyzing its feasibility. Its staff is winning the respect of many city representatives and interested residents by working and communicating honestly and respectfully with the cities, and defending the needs of the communities in regional and state debates.
The need is mutual: We cities need excellent regional transit if we want a vibrant economy without worsening traffic congestion or unhealthy air.
Caltrain has been steadily gaining ridership every month for the past 18 months, reaching up to 45,000 boardings a day in peak months. Farebox and other operating revenue are up 23 percent over last year, thanks to the higher ridership and fare increases. Peak hour bullet trains are often standing room only. Our innovation economy depends on Caltrain. We can't wait until 2034.
The early investment proposal would modernize Caltrain by 2020 with an estimated $1.4 billion of funding: $700 million from Prop. 1A High-Speed Rail funds, and an equal match from local, federal and other funds. This will allow the electrification of the existing two-track infrastructure and includes $342 million for new electric cars (Electrified Multiple Units or EMUs). The top speed will remain the same but the ability to stop and start more quickly will allow more service to more stations within the same timeframe. Emissions will drop by 90 percent. Community members will have the opportunity to review details of the electrification project as it will go through its own full environmental review process.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional board, just released the draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) on their website for public review Wednesday for their meeting March 28. The High-Speed Rail Authority recently approved a similar proposal for early investment in the Los Angeles area.
Conditions for participation
In order to sign onto the plan, cities are insisting on conditions to protect the residents from the overbuilding and overreach that marred the early versions of the high-speed rail plan. The four-track system originally proposed needs to be definitively out of the picture. In a letter responding to the recent high-speed rail program environmental impact report, Caltrain officials declared that they will only support the blended system and fortunately, Caltrain owns the right of way. The draft MOU stipulates that the blended system will remain primarily a two-track system "substantially within the existing Caltrain right of way," designed to support existing passenger and freight rail tenants.
Caltrain deserves a lot of credit for realizing that its decisions have a huge impact on its communities and committing to a methodical two-year process that will go through a complex review of changes to grade-crossings, impact on local traffic, service plans that balance express service with service to every local station, and other key trade-offs. The draft MOU calls for the blended system to be "planned, designed and constructed in a way that supports local land use and transit-oriented development policies along the Peninsula corridor."
Decisions about grade separations and future incremental changes need to be made with the stakeholders in the cities affected by these changes. Caltrain must be the lead agency for environmental review, design and construction, although MTC has a key role to play in negotiating the complex funding agreement among the multiple parties.
What's best for the cities?
There are significant risks to the high-speed rail project overall. Many legislators and voters have concerns about the business plan. The state attorney general is reviewing legal issues. The prospects for further federal funding are dicey. High- speed rail might stall this year in the state Legislature, or it might stall later if future sources of funding fail to materialize.
But if high-speed rail moves forward this year, the rail authority's early investment plan offers the prospect for better transit service on the Peninsula, with more frequent trains, more station stops, and more riders, likely with lower operating costs and higher rider revenue. With a stronger agreement between Caltrain and the rail authority providing greater local review of design decisions, this should be a net positive for the region. The next steps include extension of Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal since the downtown area has 10 times the jobs as the current San Francisco terminus at 4th and King and a funding source for grade separations for Peninsula cities that want them.
Yoriko Kishimoto and Adina Levin are co-founders of Friends of Caltrain. Yoriko is former Mayor of Palo Alto and currently a director on Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Adina is a co-founder of Socialtext and the Drive Less Challenge. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.