Caltrain wants high-speed rail to start locally

Agency asks High-Speed Rail Authority to refocus its environmental review on a Peninsula 'initial operating segment' of overall system

Caltrain has joined a growing swell of Peninsula critics of California's proposed high-speed-rail system.

But Caltrain isn't opposing the system; it wants it to start first on the Peninsula. It is calling for the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to take a fresh approach to designing the controversial, 800-mile system, currently estimated at $43 billion.

Caltrain believes that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible" through communities "where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed," Caltrain CEO Michael Scanlon said in a Sept. 1 letter to rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark.

Scanlon urged the authority to "refocus" its environmental-review process for the project, Caltrain's chief spokesman Mark Simon told the Palo Alto City Council Monday night in presenting the letter officially to the council.

Scanlon specifically requested that the authority consider building an "initial operating segment" of the rail line on the Peninsula. The authority's environmental review has thus far only considered a fully built-out system between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"We remain concerned that all of the alternatives presented as a part of the CHSRA environmental review contemplate only the full-build-out system." Scanlon wrote.

"To date, the CHSRA environmental review has not included analysis of how project construction could be phased or how a phased approach could result in an initial operating segment.

"Such a segment could be cleared for construction to modernize and electrify the corridor and accommodate sufficient capacity for initial high-speed and Caltrain service levels," Scanlon wrote.

Caltrain's appeal to the authority to change its environmental-review process cites the growing concern in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula about the state's process for building the system.

In Palo Alto, a council committee has adopted a "no confidence" stance on the project and city officials have scheduled a meeting for Sept. 20 to discuss a possible lawsuit against the authority for failing to fulfill California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements.

Caltrain's relationship with the authority has been more collegial, despite Caltrain asserting itself last May in a bid for a share of federal stimulus funds in the face of opposition to the move by the authority. Caltrain owns the Peninsula right-of-way that the authority plans to use for the new system and has been working with the authority on its design.

The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2009 stating that "it is the intention of the parties to incorporate high speed rail in the Caltrain rail corridor on a phased basis."

Scanlon also alluded to the authority's recently released Alternative Analysis, which evaluates possible design options for the rail line. The document essentially eliminated the locally popular deep-tunnel and covered-trench options on the Peninsula and identifies aerial, at-grade and open-trench designs as the most viable approaches.

Scanlon wrote that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible through a number of communities where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed."

The best way to achieve these acceptable alternatives and to defer the "more controversial elements of the full build out" is to adopt a phased approach to the 800-mile system, he wrote.

"We believe these options are available," Simon told the council. "They're viable and we're advocating with the HSR that they proceed and refocus their environmental report so they reflect these options as still viable."

Simon presented Scanlon's letter at a lengthy council meeting that featured a detailed staff presentation and comments from skeptical residents and council members, several of whom told Simon they appreciate Caltrain's position.

Rob Braulik, the city's project manager for high-speed rail, shared the latest staff analyses, which indicated that the rail authority's proposal to reduce lanes on Alma Street in Palo Alto would have "significant impacts" on northbound and southbound traffic along the busy artery.

Staff's traffic analysis also showed that if the rail authority elects not to grade-separate the tracks and to run the new trains along the two existing Caltrain tracks, local drivers seeking to cross the tracks would have to wait for up to 10 minutes before crossing.

"People will be sitting at these crossings for an indeterminable number of time," Braulik said.

He said much of the data coming from the authority is murky or inconsistent, which makes the task of analyzing the system's impacts particularly tricky. The city is in the process of hiring consultants to analyze the impact of the system on property values along and near the Caltrain corridor.

Council members, meanwhile, continued to express sometimes harsh skepticism about the project.

Mayor Pat Burt accused the authority of "strategic misrepresentation of the project," pointing to van Ark's recent assertion that the new system would increase property values along its segments. He also challenged the authority's assertion that its ridership numbers are valid despite a critical independent review from the Institute of Transportation Studies in the University of California, Berkeley -- commissioned by the state Legislature.

Burt, a member of the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said he is more than skeptical about the project.

"Our skepticism is based on what we believe to be realism," Burt said. "There are very prominent academics who have studied mega-transportation projects throughout the world and what they found -- what we are experiencing now-- is a pattern: the projects are grossly understated in capital costs and grossly overstated in projections of ridership.

"You can't build, within their budget, anything close to what this community thinks is acceptable."

The council plans to continue its discussion and possibly vote on the High-Speed Rail Committee's "no confidence" resolution at its next meeting Sept. 20.

The council is also scheduled to hold a closed session at the end of the meeting to determine whether the city should sue the authority.

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Like this comment
Posted by D C
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 14, 2010 at 3:59 am

To grasp the poor economics involved with a $43 billion, single purpose high speed rail line, that is some five times the market capitalization of Southwest Airlines ($8 billion) -- an organization that provides high speed transportation to many cities including Los Angeles.

Like this comment
Posted by another critic
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Sep 14, 2010 at 7:51 am

The problem is that the cost is not 43B. It will be more like 200B+. And taxpayers will fund much of it, however you slice it. California Taxpayers cannot afford it.

Like this comment
Posted by the long view
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 8:56 am

It's typical of California liberals that a greener alternative to driving or flying will be brought down by NIMBY-ism. Thanks a lot, fat-cat liberals

Like this comment
Posted by fix Caltrain
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:32 am

Start spending the HSR money to fix Caltrain. Worry about the rest later. All the stalling is going to kill Caltrain and put thousands of more cars on to our local streets.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 14, 2010 at 10:14 am

@ "the long view," predictably "a resident of another community"

You are so out to lunch in that comment re bother "greener alternative" and
"fat-cat liberals" that it's laughable. Try learning about life-cycle energy cost accounting, California being $19 billion in debt and counting, and the fact that many middle class people live along CHSRA's proposed right of way. Wake up, ditch the cliches, and look more deeply into the forces behind this boondoggle, including big-money interests (and their political puppets) in SF and LA that want to be able to hire cheaper labor that would commute to the cities from the well inland in the state.

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis "galen" Mitrzyk
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

The comment by "the long view" is indeed laughable. I have to wonder if "the long view" works for the HSRA. Would one of you "genius" supports of HSR please explain to everyone here how HSR is a "greener" travel option when it's going to take 71 years for the HSR to break even on greenhouse gas emissions when you include the immense amount of carbon that will be released into our air throughout the years of construction. This is simply insane! No intelligent person who knows all the facts about this pending debacle and isn't on the HSR gravy train can possible be for this incredibly short-sighted waste of our money. If we don't stop this madness now, our children's children will be paying the price for years to come.

Like this comment
Posted by Transport
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

I agree with "fix Caltrain" as we need something soon! But I also worry that in the end, we will need different transportation or we will be Stuck in Big Traffic....and bad environmental outcome too.

Like this comment
Posted by Opposites repel
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 14, 2010 at 11:10 am

Absolutely disagree with building the Peninsula section first. Why should we have to live through the construction (and maybe get stuck with these awful berms) if the whole project might not go through? Build this section, most impacted, LAST I say. Fix CalTrain another way.

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 14, 2010 at 11:21 am

Can anyone offer a little more information on Caltrain governance?

Here's the question: If the citizens own the right-of-way, with right of passage granted to the freight lines, why aren't we just saying NO to having our commuter right-of-way to this mega high speed freedway use? Starting local is such a better idea, and that does require scrapping HSR and starting over.

I know there must be a good answer, but I just haven't been able to find someone who can articulate a concise answer.

Sure, HSR might exercise eminent domain, but on the surface, it seems like if we own this, and the majority of residents oppose the passage, we should have one more avenue to "just say no" to the nonsense. If we do own it, then "them" is "us".

Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by "yikes"
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by the long view
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

The fact is, rail is the most energy-efficient means of long distance transport. What's laughable is assuming that the planning horizon for sustainability should only extend for the ~70 years quoted previously.

As for the middle class whose backyards the rail is next to, they stand to benefit the most from high speed rail. Or would you prefer that they stay confined to their middle class enclaves, without the access to easy long distance transportation that the rest of us are accustomed to?

Even places like France can get high speed rail transport right. I'd ask what's wrong with California that we can't, but the answer is painfully obvious from the comments here.

Like this comment
Posted by 'NutherThought
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I think we are missing an opprotunity here. Instead of looking to the HSR and panicing over it, we need to be setting terms and conditions for allowing it to pass through. It occured to me that if they run below grade and allow surface streets to pass over the tracks, it opens up the possibility of extending the two streets on either side of University Ave past Alma and over the tracks, which in turn means we could shut down the underpass on University and turn the downtown area into a pedestrian mall. What a boon that would be! Better access from one side of the tracks to the other without funneling into University, and a wonderful mall fo all to enjoy.

Sounds like a win to me.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2010 at 6:18 pm

'NutherThought: HSR is not going below grade; that option has been off the table for quite some time (too expensive). Even if it did, your plan to extend Hamilton Ave. across the tracks runs it smack into the Sheraton Hotel (a quick perusal of Google maps would have told you that).

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

First we eliminate ALL grade crossings. Then we electrify, and already we have 120 MPH passenger AND EXPRESS. Have one parallel heavy freight track operating 24 hours, North on even numbered days, South on odd. Have sufficient ROW for 4 tracks, but only where traffic justifies.
Allow on-line cities wide latitude selecting art work for sound walls. Allow individual cities the right to opt out of stops.

Like this comment
Posted by Stan Hutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 14, 2010 at 7:55 pm

California taxpayers do not want to pay for the HSR, we have many other priorities that we would put first.
The HSR is too expensive for what we get - only a small fraction of Californians would benefit from the huge expenditure the rest of us will pay for.
There are better ways to improve transportation in the state: smart cars and smart highways, already a reality in test programs in California and elsewhere. This would give better access to the rest of California, not just a few chosen cities that already have sufficient transportation alternatives. Why is Tahoe neglected? Anyone who's tried to ski there knows a better way is desperately needed. Why is Yosemite neglected? It would be better to disallow cars in the valley, and shuttle visitors from a train station. Why is Napa/Sonoma/Mendicino neglected? Humboldt? Shasta? Those are places I'd rather go than Sacramento, for crying out loud!

Like this comment
Posted by john burrows
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Maybe this "cheaper labor that would commute to the cities from well inland in the state" will make California a little more competitive. Last year, for instance, our exports to China totaled $10 billion, but our imports from China totaled a staggering $90 billion. This works out to $2,300 for every person in the state.

Over the next 20 years high speed rail (Including the San Diego and Sacramento segments) will cost something like $75 billion. During those same 20 years, we will spend $1.8 trillion on imports from China. Sell China more and buy a lot less from them---high speed rail
will help make this possible.

Like this comment
Posted by PoorPA
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Well if you crybaby NIMBYs don't want people from outside the community on this paper maybe you should shut up and stop putting posts on every other media around the Bay Area about how horrible HSR is and inform this little paper to stop putting a news pointer so it shows up on Google or any kind of search engines..besides that.. This is a state wide project voted on and approved and since you all live next to that 100 year old railroad and are trying your best to do the lame PA process we are coming deal with it..this is not some condo builder you bullies usually scream at..and NO fearmongers I have nothing to do with CAHSR or any transit agency or union..

Like this comment
Posted by bikes2work
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:37 pm

I don't understand why Galen who is afraid of airplane contrails is opposed to HSR.

And California Taxpayers voted for HSR. Seems like they want it. (I didn't vote for it, but I respect the majority vote). Besides, the Feds seem willing to pay for most of it. Sounds like win-win for California. It is just moving too fast for the Palo Alto Process. Every decision in Palo Alto has to have 100% consensus to move forward. Anything else is blasphemy.

Like this comment
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 15, 2010 at 9:04 am

CALTRAIN Board of Directors

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which owns and operates Caltrain, consists of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

Representing City and County of San Francisco:
Jose Cisneros, appointed by the Mayor of San Francisco
Sean Elsbernd (Chair), appointed by San Francisco County Board of Supervisors
Nathaniel Ford, appointed by the Municipal Transportation Agency

Representing the San Mateo County Transit District:
Mark Church (Vice Chair), representing SamTrans
Omar Ahmad, City of San Carlos
Arthur Lloyd, appointed by San Mateo County Transit District

Representing Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority:
Don Gage, county supervisor
Ash Kalra, representing VTA
Ken Yeager, county supervisor, representative to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

That's good info, Train Neighbor. Let's take it a step further. Of the three Caltrain Board members representing Santa Clara County, which ones represent Palo Alto and the northern end of the county?

Ash Kalra - San Jose City Council Member.
Ken Yeager - County Supervisor representing 4th district: Campbell, Santa Clara and west San Jose.
Don Gage - County Supervisor representing 1st district: Almaden Valley, Santa Teresa, Blossom Valley, Los Gatos, Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Santa Cruz Mountains.

In short, none.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

Palo Alto City Council: The big news yesterday is city of San Jose demanding that CHSRA sign a binding contractual agreement that gives the city the right to have final say in the design and materials of the HSR solution through their city. They resolve to support an ariel alignment/station ON THE CONDITION that CHSRA signs such a contract by by Oct 1.

This should be followed closely by PA city council and all other cities along the route. Any such final contracts should be obtained by all, and made public. ALL cities should obtain similar signed binding contracts with the CHSRA providing each city with authority to approve the designs and materials (alignments, station designs, impacts, mitigations) through their cities.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 15, 2010 at 1:09 pm

I only use CalTrain once or twice a year to go to a Giants game (I work from home).

CalTrain is bleeding money. They want HSR because it is the only way that they will receive (in-direct) funding to improve their own rail lines and electrify their system.

In other words, CalTrain wants to use state money to solve their problems that they have not been able to solve with their own means.

CalTrain is already highly subsidized and it is a money loser despite the tax money. When is "enough is enough"?

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

@ Cresecent Park Dad:

Since no American public transit system pays for itself from fares alone, even in densely populated cities, are you suggesting that we do away with all of them? Talk about clean air impacts and being green! Since VTA, Muni, and Samtrans have chosen to reduce their contributions to Caltrain, HSR is in fact the only way that Palo Alto and the Peninsula will EVER have grade separated, clean air public transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2010 at 5:15 pm

CalTrain's been running its locomotives backwards for too long. The proper place to prove out HSR's viability is on its native turf, the long run, from San Jose to Sylmar. Existing rail commuter lines like CalTrain and MetroLink can feed it while the really expensive end caps get built, if they're ever built.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If interurban transit was allowed/required to carry containerized express, it might go a long way toward covering expenses and reducing over-road truck traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 7:57 pm

CalTrain ridership has eroded drastically in recent years. The millions spent electrifying a service which serves such a small number of people will never be recouped through fares, so who will pay for it? Why the California taxpayer, of course. California already has some of the highest taxes in the country, the worst credit rating of all 50 states, and is woefully in debt. Whenever you borrow money you must pay interest. Where do you think this interest comes from? Why the California taxpayer, of course!

BTW, if you think diesel engines are noisy, you should have been around in the days when steam engines used to pass by those very same homes on those very same tracks all up and down the peninsula.

Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2010 at 9:41 am

To all name callers,
I know you are; so what am I?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 19, 2010 at 10:26 am

Stan Hutchins says: "California taxpayers do not want to pay for the HSR" Don't worry the Governator is ready to make deals with China to borrow the money to finance HSR, they'll also provide the technical know-how for a price.

If Meg Whitman becomes Governor she'll borrow from the Chinese too. Our Kids and Grandkids will be in debt to China for hundreds of years!!!

So long as gasoline prices stays so cheap driving your car to Disneyland will still be cheaper and you'll have your car with you.

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Sep 19, 2010 at 6:39 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

Timothy Gray, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Sep 14, 2010 asked:

Can anyone offer a little more information on Caltrain governance?

Here's the question: If the citizens own the right-of-way, with right of passage granted to the freight lines, why aren't we just saying NO to having our commuter right-of-way to this mega high speed freedway use? Starting local is such a better idea, and that does require scrapping HSR and starting over.

My answer:
First, the 'we' you refer to is the Caltrain board - so you can always lobby those members, or the Santa Clara reps (see Web Link). FYI: Ash Kalra, representing VTA , is San José City Council Member.

Second: It is my understanding the Caltrain board is looking to HSRA to help finance much needed corridor improvements, including grade separations at all crossings - including those in PA (eg. Charleston, Meadow, Alma, Churchill)and electrification.

Finally, while Caltrain owns the right of way, it seems that their bargaining power is lessened because it is broke!

I hope this is helpful - do note everything I wrote is only what I believe to be true....I may be an activist but I am not a professional.

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

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