With trains on the Peninsula currently operating at record, standing-room-only levels and providing an increasingly unpleasant commute experience, Caltrain is appropriately eager to get started this year on its $1.5 billion electrification project.
Unfortunately, it is also completely brushing off important concerns raised by Palo Alto over the substantial negative impacts at the city's three railroad grade crossings. And, adding insult to injury, it is boldly claiming exemption from the environmental law that gives the public the right to challenge the adequacy of mitigation measures.
Replacing diesel-powered trains with modern electric engines will enable faster, more frequent and quieter operations, will nearly eliminate air pollution and is the best way to significantly address the growing demand for the service.
It is clearly the right move and enjoys widespread support. But it cannot be done in a vacuum and leave to later a solution to the problem of existing grade-level road crossings as if they aren't related to the project.
To accomplish the electrification, an overhead electric-wiring system will be constructed for the entire 51-mile corridor from San Francisco to San Jose. (Electrification between San Jose and Gilroy is not part of the plan.) The project is now expected to be completed in late 2020 or early 2021.
When done, more frequent train service, especially during peak times, will make getting across the tracks even more difficult than it currently is for cars, bikes and pedestrians.
Perhaps feeling emboldened by the train system's current popularity, Caltrain has arrogantly chosen to simply disregard important negative impacts of the modernization program and has declared itself to be outside the reach of the state's environmental laws.
Yesterday the Caltrain board of directors, composed of three representatives each from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, was expected to approve the final environmental impact report (EIR) as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) but assert that it wasn't legally obligated to follow CEQA and was only "voluntarily" following CEQA procedures.
The claimed exemption from state environmental laws was a new addition to the final EIR, released on Dec. 4. It says the Caltrain board "expressly preserves its ability to assert pre-emption if legal challenges to the EIR are initiated."
The Caltrain board, apparently at the urging of its publicly paid attorneys, is trying to piggy-back on a recent court decision that ruled the High Speed Rail Authority wasn't subject to CEQA because it is a federally regulated railway system. In issuing the final EIR, Caltrain's press release made no mention of its new claim of CEQA exemption even though it was the most significant change made.
The legal issue of federal pre-emption aside, Caltrain staff has repeatedly assured the public and city officials throughout the rail corridor that the environmental review process was the protection cities needed to ensure impacts of the rail project were properly addressed.
Of primary concern for Palo Altans is what will happen with the three heavily congested grade-level crossings at Charleston, Meadow and Churchill, all of which will be operating at the worst possible "F" level of congestion even without the rail electrification and increased service, but which will be substantially worse when the project is completed if no changes occur at these crossings.
The city of Palo Alto has repeatedly raised concern about these crossings, but Caltrain says the impacts are "unavoidable" and any mitigation is "financially infeasible."
Caltrain, a public agency operated by SamTrans under contract from the three-county "joint powers" agency, owes the public far more than that if it expects any further taxpayer support for a viable train system in the future. After years of being snubbed by the allocation of funds from several Santa Clara County transit sales-tax measures, which were instead diverted to BART, it's long past time for Caltrain to include planning and engineering costs for the least expensive method of eliminating grade crossings: raised berms and lowered roadway undercrossings.
After San Francisco, Palo Alto is the busiest station in the entire Caltrain system, and Palo Alto voters have repeatedly given strong support to county transit sales-tax measures that contained unfulfilled promises for Caltrain improvements.
If Caltrain has any hope of Palo Alto voters supporting future transit taxes, it needs to be a forceful advocate and partner in accomplishing grade separations. Without that, it is merely seeking to bully its way to a system that will ultimately fail to achieve its full potential.