Caltrain asserts itself in race for federal funds

California High-Speed Rail Authority needs Caltrain's right of way for the Peninsula segment but lags in approvals, threatening early funding

The two agencies responsible for building the Peninsula section of the high-speed-rail system now find themselves in a competitive race for federal-stimulus funds, Caltrain's chief spokesman told the Palo Alto City Council Monday night.

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, asked the council to support Caltrain's proposed amendments to Senate Bill 965, a bill that governs expenditure of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

Simon said Caltrain hopes the amendments would allow it to obtain some of this federal money and, in doing so, fund rail improvements on the Peninsula.

"Part of the concern is if we don't speak up for this money now it will go to another segment somewhere else in the state," Simon told the council.

Simon said he expects the rail authority, which is banking on the federal funds, to oppose the Caltrain amendments.

Caltrain and the rail authority are both seeking to secure major portions of the $2.25 billion the federal government allotted to California in January for high-speed rail. The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding last year to work together on the Peninsula segment of the controversial high-speed-rail line, which has attracted waves of opposition in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula.

The rail authority has yet to complete the required environmental analysis for the Bay Area segment of the line and could lose the federal grant if the analysis isn't completed by November 2011.

Caltrain's project, by contrast, has already undergone the required reviews and could be implemented as soon as the cash-strapped agency finds the $1.5 billion required to fund it.

Under the rail authority's current plan, the new high-speed-rail line would share the Caltrain corridor with Caltrain on San Francisco-to-San Jose segment. The authority has not yet determined how these two systems would share the corridor, which is owned by Caltrain.

The race for federal funds could create a fissure between Caltrain and the rail authority, the two agencies that united last year to form the Peninsula Rail Program.

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

He said Caltrain is not looking to abandon its partnership with the rail authority, but said the agency would only be willing to share its right-of-way if the new rail line doesn't hinder existing rail service. He said Caltrain partnered with the authority in hopes of finding a way to pay for the electrification process.

"When the partnership doesn't work for us, we're prepared to assert our ownership rights of the right of way," Simon said.

The rail authority has assumed in its business plan that the entire federal amount would be used to fund voter-approved high-speed-rail project -- an 800-mile system between San Francisco and Los Angeles that the authority plans to have in place by 2020. The rail authority estimates the project to cost about $43 billion and, according to its most recent business plan, is banking on about $17 billion in federal grants for the project.

But on Monday night, Simon told the council that Caltrain hopes to use the federal funds for its own project -- the long-planned electrification of the Caltrain -- and asked the council to support Caltrain's bid for federal funds.

If delays in the Bay Area high-speed-rail segment continue and the first round of federal funding is reallocated elsewhere, the likeliest destination could be the Anaheim segment of the line, which has made the furthest progress toward environmental clearance. It doesn't hurt that Curt Pringle, the chairman of the rail authority's board of directors, is the Anaheim mayor, Simon said.

Simon's presentation came at a time when the council was discussing the revised "guiding principles" for its High-Speed Rail Committee. The principles, which the council adopted unanimously, reinforce Palo Alto's opposition to elevated high-speed-rail alignment. They also allege that the rail authority's ridership study "contains dubious and erroneous assumptions" and that its pending environmental review for the Central Valley-to-San Francisco segment is "fatally flawed."

Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa praised the new guiding principles as a document that "puts a stake in the ground" and clearly establishes Palo Alto's position on major high-speed-rail issues. The new principles also state that Palo Alto "strongly supports" Caltrain and its electrification project, "independent of high-speed rail."

The council generally expressed support for Caltrain's proposed legislative amendments and agreed to discuss the issue further and, if needed, pass a resolution supporting Caltrain's effort.

The council's High-Speed Rail Committee is scheduled to discuss Caltrain's amendments to SB 965 at its meeting Thursday morning. The full council would vote on the proposed resolution at its May 24 meeting.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on May 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

Great idea!

Palo Alto City Council, please support Caltrain's proposed amendments to Senate Bill 965.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Yea, much more useful that the pie in the sky HSR!

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2010 at 3:18 pm

If Caltrain received capital development funds of its own to electrify and grade separate, it would have no use or need for HSR at all. However, there are many who object to HSR on the Caltrain corridor, but are happy with Caltrain's grade separations and electrification.

Beware. What's bad for the pot, is bad for the kettle, to confuse an old saying. First of all, Caltrain can upgrade itself with bells and whistles all it wishes and still fail to be an effective public mass transit commuter service.

They are severely mismanaged. They are personnel top-heavy and those costs are far too high.
Their subsidy reductions, while now fairly common across all the transit operators, still should have been anticipated. Caltrain has been a structural deficit mess for years.

They claim, counterintuitively, that electrification and EMUs will sharply increase their ridership over current levels and reduce their budget deficits. That reasoning is as absurd as it is astounding.
I consider it evidence of incompetence to posit such an argument.

However, if their cries of WOLF are merely fraudulent scare tactics, since it is they who are among the wolves, then it verifies their corruption no less than that of their colleagues at the CHSRA.

What underlies their hardware upgrade aspirations is indicative of their failure to understand that their current "business model" is totally incorrect. Contrary to their belief, they are not in the railroad business; they are in the public service transit business. They don't seem to know that.

More capital development funds, from ARRA stimulus pools or elsewhere, will not improve their service or our satisfaction with them.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on May 19, 2010 at 9:09 am

Mr. Engel, an electrified Caltrain vastly improves the lives of residents near the tracks, by reducing noise and air pollution. In addition, for riders that want weekend and late night service, smaller EMUs can be run, vs the large locomotives.

Given that you live adjacent to the tracks, its very surprising that you take such a hostile approach, to such a potentially positive move.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2010 at 11:50 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The railroads are in the public service transit business not by choice but because the alternative was confiscation of their property. Railroads that don't make a profit are sold for scrap or bike trails. I used to read the list of fallen flags in railfan mags, I no longer bother. Keep screwing over the RRs and soon the Roaring Camp and Big Trees.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

[continued] will be the only railroad left.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of another community
on May 20, 2010 at 9:03 am

Mr Engel,

Caltrain is 2nd best operating agency in the Bay Area for cost of operations vs. revenue (40%). Only BART (50%) exceeds Caltrain in operating costs versus revenue. It is operating better than SF Muni and 3-4 times better than VTA (15%), AC Transit, GG Transit, and CC Transit. So it is misleading to characterize the agency in that light. No public transit agency operates without subsidies. Only Caltrain has no dedicated subsidy source. Bridge tolls and property taxes subsidize BART. Thai is not the case of Caltrain. Within the entire state, Caltrain is one of the 5 best operating systems in this category.

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

Should we get rid of state propositions on the ballot?
By Diana Diamond | 14 comments | 1,699 views

Couples: A Relationship Test . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,221 views

Food Party! SOS
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 1,003 views

Enjoy every configuration of your family
By Cheryl Bac | 4 comments | 629 views