Caltrain outlines $9B to $11B 20-year corridor grade separation program

Caltrain is starting to organize the 42 remaining at-grade crossings on the corridor it owns as a comprehensive program with a price tag in the range of $9Billion to $11Billion

In order to meet pent up demand that would quadruple ridership by 2040 – the equivalent of adding another Highway 101 – Caltrain would need to nearly fully grade separate the corridor from downtown San Jose, according to assessment being conducted for the 2040 business plan (see presentation given to Board).

Historically, grade separation projects have been thought of as local projects with benefits for safety and local crosstown connectivity.  Looking at the projects all together can help in understanding and communicating the overall benefits for transit ridership and congestion relief, and with that big picture of big regional transportation benefits, can help, in pursuing major pots of regional, state, and maybe someday federal funding. Looking at the program together may help determine prioritization criteria relating to ease and cost of construction, not just individual city preference. Also, looking at the program together may help Caltrain assess the organizational structure it needs to be able to deliver that sort of major project.

Today, 71 of 113 crossings along the Caltrain corridor have already been separated (63%) and 12 of 30 crossings along the UP corridor have been separated (29%).  Caltrain’s analysis envisions that about ¾ of the grade separation projects would recreate crossings for drivers, and about ¼ would close the crossing to drivers and replace a vehicle crossing with a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian crossing, as is being planned for Castro/Moffett in Mountain View.

For the 28 at-grade crossings, on right of way owned by the Union Pacific freight railroad, Caltrain is including them in the review, but planning and funding would need to be done separately.

Caltrain staff presented the first draft of its analysis of corridorwide grade separation needs last Thursday at the Local Policymaker Working Group, and then at this Thursday’s board meeting. Both sets of policymakers strongly supported the comprehensive look at the grade separation needs.

The grade separation will be incorporated into a larger capital program will all of Caltrain’s expected needs to quadruple ridership, including the passing tracks, platform and level boarding improvements, and train storage and maintenance investments this summer.

One topic that was touched on briefly but not yet explored in depth was the potential role of “land value capture” to help pay for grade separations.  At the Local Policymaker Group meeting, Palo Alto Council Member Lydia Kou expressed an interest in more tunnelling, as found in Singapore. Board member Gillett remarked that in Singapore, urban rail infrastructure is paid for using revenues from very tall office and housing buildings that are built at station areas.   This sort of “value capture” funding can be used in the Bay Area, and has been used to help pay for the Salesforce Transbay transit center and is being contemplated for San Jose’s Diridon station areas. But to take advantage of the large potential funding, cities need to enable dense urban development.