Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 15, 2011

Guest Opinion: Caltrain has escaped cuts for now, but what's next?

Support group continues to look for ways to electrify Peninsula rail link

by Yoriko Kishimoto and Adina Levin

The final piece of funding to secure at least one year of no-cuts to Caltrain's operating schedule was approved last month. Thanks to an outpouring of emails and the leadership of the transit agencies that control Caltrain's future, we've saved our Caltrain. But just for one year.

What's next?

First, the same constellation of transit agencies needs to cobble together a second year of patches to keep Caltrain going until we have time to go to the voters. Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) has been polling recently to gauge support for a November 2012 funding measure so Caltrain will no longer be the only major regional transit agency with zero dedicated funding.

Caltrain also must find a timely way to fund its modernization program so it can continue to meet the ridership demand that has continued to surge through the fiscal crisis. There is a critical window of opportunity today: There is an urgent need for Bay Area and California to act quickly and with one voice before the window closes.

The big picture is positive. The Bay Area continues to be the global center for innovation and Caltrain is the main transit system linking San Francisco to Silicon Valley, with equally robust ridership going north and south. More and more people are voting with their feet and dollars to live in transit-accessible and walkable neighborhoods. Almost a tenth of Caltrain riders (9 percent) bring their bikes on board: Caltrain is becoming a model for how public transit can work in a mixed urban/suburban setting.

But leading edge technology from Apple, Facebook and Google stand in stark contrast to Caltrain's 20th-century diesel locomotives, signal-control systems and physical infrastructure.

Caltrain needs to modernize so it can continue to improve both local service as well as the popular Baby Bullet express service. Electrification will save energy, clean the air, provide flexible, fast and quiet service and increase ridership providing Caltrain with an even higher farebox recovery ratio (47 percent) than it enjoys already. For years, Caltrain has been pursuing this goal but could never get the necessary capital funding.

Then along came High Speed Rail (HSR), dangling the prospect of federal and state funding. The combination of an arrogant HSR board, the vision of an elevated four-track state system ripping through our Peninsula communities on our locally owned right-of-way and the federal pressure to "obligate funds" by September 2012 came together to delay the Peninsula project and send the first phase to the Central Valley.

Today, there is a final chance to try to "do it right." Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, state Senator Joe Simitian and state Assembly member Rich Gordon authored a memo proposing a "blended implementation" to allow a limited number of HSR trains to share Caltrain's existing right-of-way.

A recent letter from the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group supports the idea of moving some of the early funding to the north and south ends of the system. The Central Valley is intended to be a demonstration segment, but "analysis has shown that the Central Valley segment would not actually demonstrate high-speed service because it would not be electrified. Keeping the majority of funding in the Central Valley but redistributing some to the San Francisco-San Jose and Los Angeles-Anaheim segments would benefit 28 times as many "proven passengers." A shift is not likely to happen without strong and united support from the Peninsula.

Caltrain is currently doing a critically important line capacity study, to see how many trains can be accommodated on the existing right-of-way with electrification, a modernized signaling system and other minimal infrastructure improvements. Marian Lee, acting director of the Caltrain modernization program, uses the analogy of looking at whether building a two-bedroom house will suffice for now, rather than seeking permits for a giant four-bedroom house when it will probably be decades before we need it.

The capacity study will provide some basis for what a "blended implementation" might actually mean for the neighbors and users of Caltrain. Hopefully the study will help us understand what future service levels will look like, how specific stations are served, what station to station time will be for commuters, where passing tracks need to be added, and what the impact might be on local streets. Preliminary results of the feasibility of this "two-bedroom" model should be out by mid-August.

The electrification EIR (environmental report) has been held up for a year due to community concerns about high-speed rail. It currently does not include any high-speed rail analysis. If the feasibility study shows that a blended implementation is practical, these and other updates can be incorporated into the electrification EIR and address the community's concerns through a clear and transparent "roadmap." A Friends of Caltrain meeting is scheduled for Aug. 19 where the preliminary results of the capacity study will be reviewed. Sign up on friendsofcaltrain.org to be kept up to date.

In summary, the key next steps for Caltrain will be to:

Shape and support a funding measure for permanent dedicated source of operating funding, probably for November 2012;

Assuming the blended implementation is feasible, get local, state and federal interests aligned in the next couple months so we can secure the funding to modernize Caltrain.

A modern Caltrain is key to the Bay Area communities being able to connect jobs to housing while reducing greenhouse emissions. The devil is in the details but we can tackle every detail through a collaborative, transparent process. This is indeed a critical juncture for Caltrain, and all of us living and working in the Caltrain communities.

Yoriko Kishimoto is former Mayor of Palo Alto and currently a director of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Adina Levin is a founder of Drive Less Challenge and Socialtext. They are two co-founders of Friends of Caltrain.

Comments

Posted by fix Caltrain, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2011 at 9:33 am

Why does Caltrain have to keep scrounging for operating money while other taxpayer-funded transportation services, like highways, have no such problem? Caltrain is as important as any other piece of our transportation network. They should get a fixed portion of the county and state transportation budget.


Posted by Hinda Sack, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm


I am glad that the Friends of Caltrain have managed to secure operating funds. I hope they are able to create structural changes to Caltrain's funding such that it no longer has to scrounge.

However there are several things in this Op Ed piece that are of great concern to me. Blaming the HSR for the delay in the implementation of the Caltrain electrification project is a bit like the classic definition of the Jewish term, chutzpa. The joke goes that a child kills his parents but pleads for leniency before the judge because he's an orphan. Caltrain "invited" the HSR on the peninsula. It signed an MOU with HSR as far back as 2003, well before the 2008 referendum. It cemented that with another MOU in 2009. It welcomed the HSR because it saw in the HSR a source of funding for electrification. Don't blame the delay in electrification on the HSR. Rather, I would say, blame it on the pact Caltrain created with HSR and has continued to maintain. Caltrain has the right by contract to renounce the MOU with Caltrain with 30 days notice. Caltrain has been requested to end its MOU with HSR in exchange for more community support for its modernization project. Furthermore, Caltrain itself has held up certifying its final EIR according to its own staff, because of some ongoing legal negotiations independent of HSR considerations.

My second big objection to the Op Ed piece is that it implies that a two track system with few HSR trains sharing Caltrain trackage is a potential solution to many CEQA issues. Until recently we were told that trains would have to stay under 79 mph with our current grade crossings. ( Now I've heard higher numbers.) But the point is this, with HSR running on the peninsula there is a big omission to the rosey picture painted in this hopeful pitch for phased implementation. I give you two words: Grade Separation. Whether the system is 2, 3, or 4 tracks, grade separation is an inevitable necessity for safety when increasing train frequency and speed. What will that look like? I don't find the prospect of an elevated 2 track system much more desirable than an elevated four track system. An eyesore is an eyesore and all properties/neighborhoods within view and earshot will be deeply depreciated. Roadway separation will lead to the loss of many homes.

And speaking of eyesore. I for one consider an electrified catenary to fall into that category. Why does Caltrain insist on modernizing using 20th century technology when there are 21st century technologies that will be cheaper to build, while being almost as quiet and clean as the electrified system described in the Caltrain EIR? (I suspect the answer here lies with the MOU with HSR, because HSR.) I've heard the Caltrain technical explanations for its choice. Their approach requires an enormous capital investment that will take years to pay off even with the the most optimistic ridership numbers and revenue recapture rates.

And that brings me to another issue. What ridership studies has Caltrain done to justify its revenue projections and increased train frequency? Caltrain often reports having 40+K riders per day. Actually that is 40+k boardings per day, which is really 20+K riders per day. Perhaps Caltrain has made its data available. From the meetings I attended at Palo Alto City Hall last month, I inferred that the City Council and the PA Rail Committee didn't have that information and that Caltrain either doesn't have it or didn't care to make that information available.

Finally, I think that we really need to ask not only what kind of train system we want and need, but also what kind of community we want and need. In its EIR, Caltrain describes the right of way in much the same way as does the HSR: a largely urban corridor dominated by the railway. Do we see our community like that?

Do we envision Caltrain as metro/subway train running every few minutes from early morning until late at night bringing the added visual blight of the catenary and an increase total noise load to our neighborhoods? Or, do we envision Caltrain in its present role as a commuter railroad with a fixed schedule that serves commuters and companies along the corridor but does not dominate the communities along its right of way?

I believe that the peninsula owes it to itself to look more deeply into its core values and to weigh this description of a modernized Caltrain against that vision. I would hate to think after our struggles with the HSR over the last years, that we have not learned
how important it is to look behind every proposal to assess it's full impact before endorsing it.


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