Caltrain electrification EIR underplays environmental benefits

While the premise of Environmental Impact Reports is to disclose the negative environmental impacts of projects that might harm the environment, the most notable information in the EIR for Caltrain electrification is how it might benefit the environment.

Caltrain electrification is expected to increase ridership. By doing so, it will decrease vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions.  The improvements are forecast to start in 2019 when electrification is planned to go live, and to escalate in 2040 by which time the downtown extension to Transbay terminal is expected to be implemented.
Caltrain Electrification Ridership

However, the EIR does not analyze a set of measures that could significantly increase environmental benefits.   One glaring gap is that schedule scenario assumes that in the 2040 period Caltrain will run only 2 out of 6 peak hour trains all the way to Transbay terminal, where there are more jobs nearby than the rest of the line put together.  It wouldn’t cost more to run the trains to Transbay, and Caltrain has said that there aren’t current technical limitations that would prevent them from running all the trains to Transbay. So there isn’t any good reason to underestimate the environmental benefits of the Downtown Extension project.

There are some other options that Caltrain omits, because they are only analyzing the projects for which they currently have funding.

  • The scenario assumes that Caltrain will keep running 25% diesel trains between San Jose and San Francisco until 2040. Getting rid of the diesels sooner will further reduce emissions, improve performance, and likely increase ridership

  • The scenarios studied do not include level boarding. Level boarding could increase speed 50% over and above basic electrification, would improve Caltrain’s ability to make scheduled transfers with BART, MUNI, VTA and other services, and would increase service quality for all users, especially the disabled and elderly, as well as everyone with a bicycle, stroller, or luggage.

  • The scenario assumes that Caltrain will run six car trains.  Caltrain could extend platform length to run longer trains, adding substantially more capacity.

Benefits Compared to what?

The Environmental Impact Report shows that electrification is expected to reduce vehicle miles travelled in the region.  The EIR shows that the project will reduce overall VMT by .18% at peak periods, and .12% overall. This is a miniscule amount. It is also almost completely irrelevant.

By considering all vehicle miles travelled in the 3 counties, the EIR compares trips on Caltrain to vehicle trips crossing the Golden Gate bridge between San Francisco and Marin, Interstates 880 and 680 in Santa Clara County, 92 in San Mateo County, and many other routes which are unrelated to trips on the Caltrain corridor.

The vehicle routes that are relevant for the purposes of comparison, vehicle trip reduction, mode share and market share are Highway 101, and to a lesser extent El Camino Real and 280.

Caltrain ridership has doubled over the last decade. The increase is both absolute and relative.  Nondrivealone mode share at most leading stations has jumped, per census data. Cities on the Caltrain corridor, including San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and likely San Jose are investing programs in more aggressive mode shift.

Caltrain could provide much more meaningful comparison in terms of VMT, GHC, and commute trips on the corridor.

Budget benefits

The EIR explains that the project will reduce costs to Caltrain, by replacing diesel fuel with cheaper electricity, and will increase revenues by increasing ridership.  This will presumably make it easier to provide operating funding for Caltrain.   Obviously financial stability is not an environmental impact, but Caltrain could use the information it has in its spreadsheets to communicate to stakeholders and taxpayers how much the operating budget stands to benefit financially.

Selling the benefits

While Caltrain is in the process of communicating the environmental results of electrification, there is a powerful opportunity to communicate the benefits of the project –  including the features that would generate even more environmental benefits; including a meaningful comparison to vehicle travel on the corridor, and including benefits for the operating budget.

This would be valuable for several reasons:

  • To help stakeholders – including cities and employers – depending on Caltrain capacity to understand the options and benefits
  • To communicate the value for incremental investments that will create more “bang for the buck” from the basic electrification investment
  • To communicate the benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions to help attract support from stakeholders and funding sources focused on climate change
  • To communicate the value to the operating budget

In the unwelcome event that Caltrain electrification gets stalled amidst the legal challenges of the High Speed Rail project, communicating these benefits now will help rally the region to keep electrification funded going forward.