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.