Senator Hill files bill to nail down Caltrain electrification funding, add regional control over High Speed system design

On February 22, the bill filing deadline in Sacramento, Senator Jerry Hill filed SB 557 to protect Caltrain electrification funding from being diverted to other High Speed Rail projects, and to add regional control over controversial future design decisions.

The bill addresses two concerns that remained after the passage of SB1029, which funded High Speed Rail, and with it, Caltrain electrification as a northern segment early investment.

The first concern is whether Caltrain will actually get the funds for electrification.  SB1029 contains a provision allowing money to be transfered among subprojects of the High Speed Rail system with authorization from the State Department of Finance.   If there are cost overruns in the Central Valley, where High Speed Rail still needs to buy land and schedules are starting to slip, the High Speed Rail Authority would legally be able to move the money, preventing the implementation of Caltrain electrification, which is scheduled to be in place by 2019. SB557 specifies that the funds for the Northern and Southern California early investments must be spend for those purposes, and would limit funds transfer to temporary account management.

The second concern regards the status of the “blended system”, the plan for High Speed Rail and Caltrain to share tracks, in Caltrain’s current right of way.  Senator Hill’s bill has a provision requiring agreement among all 9 Bay Area funding partners in order to extend the High Speed Rail design beyond the currently planned blended system, essentially giving the region’s agencies veto power over expanding the system.  The bill language requires “any track expansion for the San Francisco to San Jose segment beyond the blended system approach to be approved by all 9 parties to the Bay Area High Speed Rail Early Investment Strategy Memorandum of Understanding.”   This provision is designed to allay anxieties in the region that the unpopular 4-track proposal could return.

While current High Speed Rail funding and project plans all refer to the blended system (including the funding plan in the Bay Area 9-party Memorandum of Understanding; the new 2-party MOU between Caltrain and High Speed Rail currently being finalized; and the work in progress on environmental review for Caltrain electrification), there remains an overarching program-level environmental report that provides environmental clearance for the 4-track design, contributing to continuing local concerns that the 4-track design could come back despite local opposition.

The Caltrain board and Peninsula cities support the bill. Caltrain board chair Ken Yeager spoke at the press conference, and board member Ash Khalra attended.  City Council members from Peninsula cities including Palo Alto, San Carlos, Mountain View, and other cities attended.

Staffers from Jerry Hill’s office and Seamus Murphy of Caltrain say that High Speed Rail has been involved in the drafting of the bill, but there were no representatives of High Speed Rail at the press conference.

How might the bill change in the legislative sausage factory? Palo Alto’s lobbyist, John Garamendi Jr. commented that it’s just the beginning of the game.  For Garamendi’s next report from the halls of Sacramento, come to the Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee meeting on February 28 starting at 9am.