Caltrain vote paves the way for electric trains

Board approves Final Environmental Impact report for electrification of Caltrain corridor

Caltrain's effort to replace its diesel trains with electric ones hit a milestone on Thursday morning when the agency's board of directors signed off on a key environmental document that paves the way for the project's implementation.

Without any substantive discussion or dissent, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board approved the Final Environmental Impact Report for what is known as the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP). The agency, which oversees Caltrain, hopes to implement electrification along its 51-mile corridor between San Francisco and San Jose by 2020. The project is also a stepping stone for California's controversial high-speed rail system, which would share the newly electrified tracks with Caltrain along the Peninsula.

Replacing the existing diesel trains with electric ones would enable Caltrain to increase the number of trains it runs during peak hours from five to six. It would also allow for longer trains, thus helping Caltrain to keep up with its growing ridership numbers.

Caltrain also estimates the electrified system will reduce pollutant emissions by 97 percent by 2040. With the increased service and a proposed extension of the system in San Francisco, the agency also expects more than double the current weekday ridership and to take more than 600,000 daily vehicle miles off the region's roadways.

The project has major implications for Palo Alto, which boasts the second busiest Caltrain station in the entire system (after San Francisco) and which has largely supported the concept of electrifying the tracks. At the same time, the city has been concerned about several impacts of the Caltrain project, including the expected worsening of congestion at three Alma Street intersections. While Alma's intersections with Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road are expected to be congested regardless of whether the project is implemented, Caltrain's environmental analysis indicates that they would be worse once electrification is implemented.

Because some of the project's impacts are considered "significant and unavoidable" under state law, Caltrain had to adopt a statement of overriding consideration as part of its approval of the Final Environmental Impact Report. The document states that the "unavoidable significant environmental effects of the PCEP are acceptable because specific benefits of the PCEP outweigh those effects."

The board quickly approved the report Thursday morning after hearing from about a dozen speakers. Some speakers, including bicycle advocates and representatives from business groups, urged the board to move ahead with the long-planned project. Others raised concerns about the specifics of the document.

Richard Hackmann, Palo Alto's project manager on rail issues, told the board that the city remains concerned about the unmitigated impacts that the project will have on Palo Alto.

"We believe there are partial or full mitigations at little or not cost to Palo Alto or Caltrain that can address unmitigated impacts that have surfaced in the last week, as we reviewed the EIR further," Hackmann said.

David Schonbrunn of the nonprofit Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund(TRANSDEF) criticized the project because of its connection with high-speed rail. About half of the funding for Caltrain's $1.5 billion project is coming from the California High Speed Rail Authority under an agreement between the two agencies.

Several speakers also raised concerns about Caltrain's decision to add to the environmental impact report an assertion that it is not bound by the California Environmental Quality Act. Rich Walter, a consultant who serves as Caltrain's project manager for the electrification project, reasserted that point during his brief presentation to the board Thursday. Walter said that the Surface Transportation Board has "made it clear that federal law can preempt local and state environmental laws, including CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), in a recent statement they made."

The agency, he said, has gone through the entire CEQA process and staff has recommended that the mitigations in the environmental impact report be bound to state environmental laws. At the same time, he said Caltrain wants to "reserve the right" to claim the preemption of federal law if the report is challenged.

After speakers made their public comments, the board quickly voted to approve the report and the statement of overriding consideration, with board members Tom Nolan and Adrienne Tissier each noting that the vote was a long time coming.

"We've done a lot of hard work for this," said Tissier, who earlier in the meeting was elected as board chair. "This is a real milestone for us here."

Tissier also said she is sensitive to the "last minute" concerns and that Caltrain staff can have additional discussions with interested parties to address these concerns.

"You can always add mitigations," she said.

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4 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 8, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Alleluia!! Now, let's get it built in record time. I propose: a) suspend weekend service for construction, and b) contractor incentives for early completion.

Instead of 2020, how about 2016?


4 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 8, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Why is this taking so long? Delays will just increase the cost. Get it done as soon as possible.

3 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2015 at 3:33 pm

I am sure Palo Alto will do their best to derail this project. Someone may be inconvenienced and/ or there may be too much noise or something historic will have to be taken down or a tree may have to be cut down.
Palo Alto should have final approval on this project-- we are the center of the universe, after all

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2015 at 4:28 pm

All this talk about the possibilities for the grade crossings with electrification forgets about the present grade separated crossings.

For a start, does the San Antonio Road bridge have enough space to accommodate all the wires, etc. or is the bridge going to be made higher or the tracks need to be lowered?

Any alteration to the height of the track at the grade crossings must take into account that there is a bridge over the tracks at San Antonio.

Whatever happens to the tracks at Charleston/Meadow and Churchill, will also affect the Oregon and Embarcadero underpasses. If any trenching is to occur, then there will have to be a corresponding alteration to Oregon and Embarcadero also.

None of these possible suggestions have taken into account the fact that they will automatically need to correspond to the present grade separated crossings also.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mel
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 8, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Of course Caltrain voted to approve the report, they wrote it! Conveniently, all of the real negative aspects of the related construction were deemed unavoidable, and therefore not their problem. How convenient. Caltrain appears to more like the CA HSR Authority every day.

1 person likes this
Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 8, 2015 at 9:13 pm

@Mel, that's how the California Environmental Quality Act works. It is a self-enforcing statute, in other words the enforcement mechanism is a lawsuit. The same agency preparing the Environmental Impact Report and then certifying it as compliant with CEQA is in no way a conflict of interest. Anyone who disagrees with anything in the report can try to sue, although Caltrain has a convenient trump card in Federal law if the CEQA going gets tough. We'll see who sues within the next couple of months.

I think it's difficult to argue that this project hasn't been sufficiently disclosed and debated. Their first draft EIR was published over a decade ago, and totally retooled in 2009 after a lawsuit threat. Caltrain has come a long way and they have done their homework.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2015 at 7:18 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Put Cal Train/HSR in a trench?
Has anyone bothered to considered how many times Oregon under-crossing is impassible from RAIN.

Do you expect me to believe this trench will be better. OK Yes, it will be better. At collecting MORE water.

Now add the High-voltage OPEN wires into the mix? Just shocking!

Gee Whiz, boss. I can't get to work. Cal Train is flooded (again)

3 people like this
Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

We should insist grade separation alone with the electrification. Without it, the project is just half cooked meal, you like it and you hate it. Lack of money is an issue, lack of willingness to do things right is a bigger one.

1 person likes this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 9, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Think outside the box. Elevate the tracks and build affordable housing in the space below them. Housing with trains running on the roof is guaranteed to remain affordable. ABAG will be thrilled.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Mr. C: Brilliant!

Like this comment
Posted by CantGetEverythingWeWant
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 9, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Once again, compromise is necessary. The upgrade will happen!
I believe the 'partially elevated berm' approach with undercrossings at Charleston and Meadow is the only likely approach.
Does that mean the the California station would need to be raised?
If the tracks are elevated over Churchill, what happens to the bridge over Embarcadaro? Will it need to be raised, too?

Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2015 at 2:14 am

Someone posting as "Resident" earlier wondered whether Caltrain's spiffy new 25kV overhead wires would fit under the San Antonio underpass.

Wonder no more! That question and many, many, many more have been considered and discussed in Caltrain's Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP) Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), December 2014:

Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Daniel
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 11, 2015 at 11:40 am

"Instead of 2020, how about 2016?"

-- Bay bridge ... Mitchell park library ...
Instead of 2020, how about 2030?

we are the center of the universe, after all"
-- You know my friend, anyone is. This city is. Not a transit corridor where sh*t is sprayed up in the air by slow noisy XIX century trains. Electrifying the train helps by reducing pollution and (maybe) increasing the passenger flow.
Elevation? I don't know ... How many fatal accidents were real accidents, not suicides? Maybe one out of ten. Elevation will not prevent suicides, of course.

Like this comment
Posted by Gertrude Reagan
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Alma crossings do pose a problem. However, motorists do have an option of crossing at San Antonio, Oregon (when not flooded) and Embarcadero.

Motorists have more options than trains, can use detours.

Question: How much would it cost to enlarge the Embarcadero underpass?

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2015 at 10:57 pm

So the tracks will be shared by CalTrain, CAHSR and Union Pacific freight trains. That's going to be some juggling act.

What will be the environmental impact of CAHSR on El Palo Alto and the creek?

No one has ever explained why CAHSR needs to run up the peninsula where it will be redundant with CalTrain and dead-end in San Francisco.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 18, 2015 at 1:13 am

It was the only way the politicos on the Caltrain board could get their electrification plans paid for through state tax dollars. They knew that if the BSR line had gone through (as proposed at the time of the election) the 580 corridor and terminated in either Oakland or San Jose, they could not "leverage" state tax dollars to pay for their they knew that the local county residents would agree to such an expensive project. And note that most of those board members (e.g., Quinten Kopp) are no longer on the board. Kopp was a former SF supervisor who wanted to ensure that transit into SF was modernized at everyone else's expense.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 18, 2015 at 9:07 am

Should say "would *not*"

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

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