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.