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The Green Caltrain blog is sponsored by BayRail Alliance, an all-volunteer non-profit organization supporting green rail transit in the Bay Area. This blog and BayRail have no affiliation with Caltrain.

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Palo Alto Council to discuss grade separation options

On Monday night, Palo Alto City Council will discuss a report from engineering consultancy Hatch Mott McDonald analyzing options for grade-separating three intersections in Palo Alto at Churchill, Meadow, and Charleston.

The study quotes costs for several different options:
* $1 Billion for a trench through all three intersections at 1% grade, which is preferred by Caltrain
* ~$500 Million for a trench through all three intersections at a 2% grade
* ~$500 Million for depressing all of the streets individually, and lowering Alma to maintain turning movements
* ~$300 Million for depressing all of the streets individually, and cutting off turn movements to/from Alma

Palo Alto At-Grade Crossing - Charleston and Alma

Separating the tracks from the road, one way or the other, would reduce the number of collisions and fatalities, many of which are suicides. And separating the trains from the road would prevent cross-traffic (cars, bikes, pedestrians) from needing to wait for trains to pass. Caltrain electrification, planned for 2019, would increase the number of trains per hour at peak from 10 to 12, and High Speed Rail eventually (2029 or later) could increase the number of trains to 20 per hour.

The Churchill grade separation could be done separately; the Meadow and Charleston projects would greatly benefit from being done together to help maintain turning movements.

The design with individual grade separations also would require taking substantial property – 65 full and 10 partial properties would need to be acquired.

Though Palo Alto has a policy opposing designs where the tracks are elevated, the consultants studied an option that would raise the tracks three feet. This option would require taking 8 fewer properties, and retain some of the turning movements. Because of the policy, the consultant isn’t studying options that would elevate the tracks further, which would likely cost less and require less property and street impacts. This sort of design built in Belmont/San Carlos is considered too ugly and intrusive by many in Palo Alto.

Another challenge for Palo Alto in getting grade separations implemented is the city’s policy that it should use no local money to build them. By contrast, decades ago, Berkeley raised money to underground BART – the more expensive option – through a ballot measure. Over the last decade, the City of San Mateo has assembled local matching funds of $12 million for grade separations that it wants, and these funds will help it qualify for money that the county has raised in a ballot measure.

San Mateo and San Francisco are raising money from developers to contribute to the transportation infrastructure that the developments will benefit from. However, Palo Alto has recently seen substantial opposition to large developments that offered to contribute to the city’s infrastructure needs. And the South Palo Alto area in particular is a lower density area where development is especially unwelcome.

As a next step, the city council could decide on a preferred alternative to pursue. A reason to do this in the near term is that Santa Clara County is going to be making decisions about what to include in a 2016 transportation ballot measure, and having a preferred alternative helps to get a local project onto the list.

In discussions about potentially holding a transportation ballot measure in 2014 (thankfully deferred til 2016) – the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which has led previous ballot measures, was unwilling to take an approach like San Mateo County, to allocate a pot of funds for grade separations, and then allow communities to figure out their designs and funding approaches over the decades of the measure. SVLG leader Carl Guardino made an argument that Santa Clara County expects to have specific projects picked out 3 decades in advance (even though in reality, funded projects change scope on a regular basis).

One option would be to advocate for a pot of money that could be allocated with a grant process over 30 years, and lighten the pressure of current politics on the design decision.

For more analysis of Palo Alto considerations, see this 2008 post from Clem Tiller’s blog. Tillier predicts that Palo Alto grade separations won’t happen until the late 2030s allowing for the most time to work through all of the issues.

What do you think?

The agenda item is schedule to start at 7:55pm on Monday night at Palo Alto City Hall.

Transbay board members urge Caltrain/HSR compatibility

At this morning’s Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board meeting, board members spoke up strongly in support of compatible platforms for Caltrain and High Speed Rail, in order to provide the best capacity and reliability for the blended system. Board Member Ed Reiskin, Director of Transportation for SFMTA, underscored the importance of the decision. “We’re making an investment for the next five to six generations – we will limit utility of Transbay without compatibility.” Board Chair Supervisor Jane Kim agreed: “We have constrained space at Transbay – we need the capacity – we have to come up with a compatibility solution for cost-benefit for entire system.”

Chair Kim, asked Caltrain and High Speed Rail to come back at the next monthly board meeting in November, to give a progress report on their efforts to find a solution, to study the capital and operating benefits and costs of compatibility, and asked Transbay staff to prepare a resolution with a policy in support of compatibility. Supervisor Kim will also put the topic on the agenda of the Land Use Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Board members expressed concern whether a system with incompatible platforms would allow Caltrain to send all of its regularly planned service into Transbay (where there are 3x the jobs compared to the rest of the system combined) instead of turning some trains around at 4th and King short of downtown. Caltrain’s electrification project lead Dave Couch acknowledged Caltrain has not yet studied whether they will be able to send all regular service to Transbay.

In presentations to the Transbay board, both Caltrain and High Speed Rail declared an interest in platform compatibility, but also explained the reasons why each preferred a different solution. Caltrain prefers platforms at 25″, since there are more sources of double-decker trains for high-capacity local systems. High Speed Rail prefers platforms at 51″, since higher platforms are more common for high speed long distance trains. Dave Couch Caltrain explained that it would be difficult to migrate all the way to 51″, since it is planning to run current, low-platform diesel trains for the forseeable future, due to lack of funding to upgrade all its trains. Ben Tripousis of the HSRA noted that Cap and Trade funds could provide support to replace all the diesels sooner, making migration easier.

Ben Tripousis of the High Speed Rail Authority clarified that the Request for Information issued by the High Speed Rail Authority, soliciting information about 51″ trains, did not yet start the formal procurement process. Caltrain and High Speed Rail are both seeking to issue solicitations for trains by the end of the year; Transbay board members prodded both Caltrain and High Speed Rail to verify that there was some flexibility in the schedule to work out compatibility solutions.

Lee Saage of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority – which funds San Francisco transit projects said that from the SFCTA’s perspective, compatibility should be an imperative – incompatibility would forever limit capacity and impose unnecessary costs. Compatibility analysis should consider whole system instead of favoring one operator or another.

In response to the assertions of Caltrain and High Speed Rail that compatibility is less important because the services will interact at only three stations (Transbay, Millbrae, and San Jose Diridon), Saage pointed out that the three stations where platforms are shared will likely represent a third of the ridership or more. Saage also raised an issue that has been raised by the Caltrain-High Speed Rail Compatibility blog and other local critics – that lack of platform compatibility results in extra costs for the stations at Millbrae and Diridon. Said Saage, “absent compatibility, High Speed Rail would need to build a new underground station at Millbrae, and a completely separate station at Diridon.”

Caltrain’s Marian Lee, who serves on the Transbay board, put the current challenge into perspective. Earlier in the evolution of the High Speed Rail project, it had proposed a system with separate tracks and platforms, which was costly and was rejected politically by corridor communities. The blended system, where Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share tracks, is a compromise that constrains system capacity. Lee explained that solutions will require compromise. “Everything is on the table. There will be tradeoffs, with upsides and downsides. If everyone would win on every aspect, we would have a solution by now. We’re hopeful for a good outcome that will last for 40, 80, 100 years.”

Senator Jerry Hill, Palo Alto City Council discuss next-generation Caltrain

At Monday night’s Palo Alto City Council meeting, the Council invited Senator Jerry Hill to discuss, among other things, Caltrain’s next phase after the retirement of CEO Mike Scanlon. Senator Hill observed that according to the Joint Powers Agreement crafted when Caltrain was formed in 1991, the SamTrans CEO is designated to run Caltrain – but that provision was required until San Francisco and Santa Clara County repaid San Mateo County for the original purchase of the right of way. That repayment was made several years ago, bailing out San Mateo County for the 2010/11 fiscal crisis.

So is it time to make changes?

The priority, according to Mayor Shepherd and Council Member Scharff, should be funding. Mayor Shepherd commented that 2016 could be the magic year for Caltrain dedicated funding. San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties both have transportation ballot measures planned, and San Mateo County could also raise funding at the same time.

Council Member Burt suggested that it might be a good time to consider changing the affiliation with SamTrans. Council Member Scharff observed that Caltrain board members are appointed by the three counties, disconnected from from direct public representation – should Caltrain instead look to an elected board like BART? Senator Hill reflected that it may indeed be time to make a change – JPAs tend to lack direct transparency and accountability.

Electrification creates opportunities for more frequent service at lower operating cost. Level boarding would make coordinated service with BART and other transit services feasible. There are important discussions and decisions in the coming months to determine the leadership, structure and funding of next-generation Caltrain.

VTA proposes next BART phase – Downtown and Diridon only

This morning, VTA staff proposed to the BART SV board subcommittee a scaled back Phase 2 of the BART to Silicon Valley project which would include Downtown and Diridon stations, but not yet stations at Alum Rock or City of Santa Clara. Staff had evaluated project options against the criteria for federal funding and found that the two-station project would maximize the chances of getting the federal funding critical to complete the project. VTA would still perform environmental review of all four stations, but would seek federal funding for the 2-station option.

BART SV options ranked by federal funding criteria
BART SV options ranked by federal funding criteria

The full 4-station project would cost $4.7 billion, (with $1.1 billion or more from federal New Starts funding) and would need a full $3 billion out of the proposed $3.5 billion upcoming transportation tax that VTA is considering for 2016, eliminating most other projects, or depend bonds with very high debt service costs. By contrast, the 2-station project would cost $3.4 Billion, and would require up to $1.7 billion of the upcoming sales tax measure and/or additional funds. Federal criteria: mobility improvements, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness, and land use, together favored the 2-station version over the 4-station version, and also potential 3 station versions.

There were other differences in the proposed project, compared to the version reviewed earlier. Staff proposed that the Alum Rock station be moved from near 28th street near the 101 freeway 23rd street, and a parking garage, opposed by the community, would be removed. VTA staff member Gonot expressed concern that removing the parking would greatly hamper ridership, however General Manager Fernandez noted that the area would be served by BRT, and was relatively near Berryessa’s park and ride.

The 23rd street alignment would allow BART to use a bridge over 101, saving money with less tunnelling. Another difference is that the full 4-station project would include a maintenance facility at Newhall, while the 2-station project would have a storage yard at Newhall, to be used to store cars from BART’s larger fleet, but not the full maintenance facility.

VTA staff wants to get the project into the queue for Federal New Starts funding by the end of the year, so the final decision could be made by 2016, before the conclusion of the Obama administration.

At the meeting, board member Cindy Chavez expressed concern about reaction from Alum Rock/5 Wounds community, which had engaged in a comprehensive planning process for the station area. Chavez expressed a strong interest in more public outreach, so that community members do not feel like decisions are a “done deal” without community input. Chavez also mentioned that the Silicon Valley Leadership Group had discussed options, and agreed that Downtown/Diridon were the highest priorities.

And board member Ken Yeager expressed concern about City of Santa Clara, which has been eager to get a BART station of its own, although the Caltrain station at the same location currently serves about 800 riders. Yeager also mentioned the benefit of the Santa Clara station as an airport connector. However, given the multi-modal station at Diridon including eventual high speed rail, Diridon has been mentioned as a potential primary airport connection location.

Board Member Yeager made a salient point – stakeholders were concerned that if Phase 2 were broken up into 2a and 2b, then there would be a risk that 2b would never happen, due to the land use in those areas. If there is a lack of supportive land use and land use plans, that would seem like a good reason to refrain from building a station. Community member Roland Lebrun expressed concern about the proposed delay of the Alum Rock station which had substantial community support.

This decision will be presented for the VTA board approval at its upcoming November meeting.

Given the need to consider cost-effectiveness and land use to receive the federal funding, and the focus on the critical BART-Caltrain connection creating a continuous backbone transit route around the bay, this seems like a prudent approach. San Jose readers and transit supporters – what do you think?

Caltrain and High Speed Rail announce plans to work together on level boarding, platform compatiblity

Last night, at a Friends of Caltrain forum in Mountain View City Hall, Caltrain and High Speed Rail said publicly that were working together to explore solutions for level boarding with common platform height. Level boarding will not only deliver faster, more accessible Caltrain service, but would allow Caltrain to run a smoother service pattern that can carry more riders with the same number of trains. A common platform height has the potential to help Caltrain and High Speed Rail get the most capacity from the “blended system”, where the two rail services will be sharing tracks – especially in the constrained space of the Transbay Terminal.

Ben Tripousis, Northern California Regional Director of High Speed Rail also said that to foster a compatible solution, the High Speed Rail Authority would consider including including compatibility expenses as part of the package of next phase investments. These expenses include changing platforms to a new platform height, and replacing the remaining Caltrain diesel trains (Caltrain’s current plan for electrification calls for replacing only 75% of the diesel trains). Tripousis mentioned that a High Speed Rail package for Northern California might also include funding for grade separations, which prevent traveling at faster speeds, and increase community acceptance of more frequent train service.

Dave Couch, who is leading project management for the Caltrain electrification project, said that Caltrain would refrain from sending out the request for proposals for rail car procurement in order to work with high speed rail on a compatibility solution.

In a panel discussion, Lou Thompson, chair of the High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, talked about the groups recommendation that High Speed Rail and Caltrain study compatibility options with a strong goal to achieve compatibility. Based on research of blended systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Thompson explained that there are multiple ways to solve the problem technically. While there will be no equipment that can be bought exactly “off the shelf”, and the solution might not be ideal for either, a workable solution is very likely feasible, which would deliver better service and reliability.

Brian Dykes of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority talked about how providing compatible platforms would allow more trains to serve Transbay, which could otherwise be a bottleneck for the capacity of the entire system. Gillian Gillett, Transportation Policy Director from the San Francisco Mayor’s office, talked about the city’s growth goals, which will focus new jobs and housing even more strongly around the Caltrain corridor; capacity to serve San Francisco, already Caltrain’s largest market, is essential.

Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain (your blogger) presented background information about Caltrain’s capacity challenges and ridership growth. Ridership has doubled over the last decade – if longterm demographic and land use trends continue, Caltrain will need to serve more riders than predicted in the agency’s forecast, and it will be critical to get the most capacity from the tracks shared with High Speed Rail.

Notable in the presentations and panel discussion was the absence of explanations of why compatibility would be very difficult and/or not necessary. In the past, Caltrain and High Speed Rail have provided explanations regarding the difficulty of finding suitable equipment, the fact that Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share only a few stations, and that Transbay would not present a capacity constraint on the system.

In answer from an audience member question, Gillett talked about the city’s assertive response to the efforts of developers to renege on a deal to contribute funding for the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to Transbay. The developers are now threatening to sue the city. “The first buildings are being built, and they need an occupancy permit from the city. Other buildings haven’t started construction yet, and need building permits. They can sue, but we have their permits. It would be mutually assured destruction.”

Dave Couch also talked about the regulatory hurdle required for level boarding – the PUC would need to change an obsolete rule, and Union Pacific – a tough negotiator – would need to agree.

Caltrain and High Speed Rail did not make any commitments regarding compatible platforms, but they did talk publicly and optimistically about their efforts to work together on a shared solution.

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  • Interactive Caltrain schedule

  • Calendar of events

    • November 5, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • November 6, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • November 11, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • November 13, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102

    • November 19, 2014

      Caltrain CAC meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • November 20, 2014

      Caltrain BAC meeting

      Starts: 6:30 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos, CA

      Description: Bicycle Advisory Committee

    • December 3, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • December 4, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • December 9, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • December 11, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102