Last night, a draft Memorandum of Understanding was published that provides $1.5B of funding from High Speed Rail, federal, state and regional sources to fund the electrification of the Caltrain Corridor.
The MOU contains key protections for the Peninsula, defining the project as primarily within the Caltrain Right of Way, primarily two tracks.
This Early Investment Plan provides welcome funding for a badly-needed, long-awaited upgrade to Caltrain. Ridership has been increasing for the last 18 months and some peak hour trains are standing room only. Electrification will provide a welcome increase in capacity, service frequency, and station access. This will provide relief for traffic congestion and rising gas prices, and reduce pollution and noise.
The agreement provides $600 Million of Proposition 1A funds (the High Speed Rail bond measure), and $106 Million
of Prop 1A connectivity funds, matched by Federal, state and regional funding. According to the project description, if funding is finalized in 2012, the Electrification project could be complete in 2019.
If advanced by the MTC board on March 28, the High Speed Rail board will review it for approval on April 5 – along with a new draft business plan. The language of the MOU will not be finalized until MTC’s board meeting in May, so there are still opportunities for refinement.
The high speed rail project deserves a lot of scrutiny this Spring in the legislative budget cycle but if it goes forward, this path provides major benefits to the region.
The devil is in the details. Read on for Friends of Caltrain analysis. It will be helpful to come to the MTC meeting on Wednesday, March 28, details are also below.
There is critical protection for the region built into the MOU.
1) The language of the MOU clarifies that the system “will remain substantially within the Caltrain Right of Way” and clarifies that it is “primarily a two-track system.” Incorporating concerns of Peninsula communities, this MOU clearly rules out a continuous four-track system as envisioned by High Speed Rail initially, which was destructive and overkill in capacity.
2) The MOU clarifies that the Environmental Impact Report for Electrification needs to be recirculated to be brought up to date and “to incorporate local and regional conditions and concerns.”
3) The MOU clarifies that the project needs to support local land use and Transit Oriented Development policies (ruling out unwanted intrusions such as the large train storage and maintenance yard HSRA had intended for Brisbane).
However, there is a key area where clarification is needed.
There is a lot of confusion on the Peninsula about the relative role of MTC, Caltrain, and the High Speed Rail Authority. It will be very helpful to clarify the respective roles to residents and local decision-makers.
* MTC assembles and disburses federal, state, and regional funding. In the current deal, MTC played a role in bringing in money from BART, bridge tolls, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and brokering the federal/state/regional funding package.
* Caltrain is the lead agency to manage the electrification project, including environmental review, design and construction. Decisions about grade separations and schedules will be made by Caltrain with the stakeholders in the cities affected by these changes.
Need future funding for Grade Separations, Downtown Extension to Transbay Terminal
The earlier drafts presented by Caltrain staff included some funding for grade separations that will be valuable for safety and traffic reduction on the Peninsula. Those funds are not present in the draft to present to the MTC board.
Once Caltrain has finished the 2-year planning process to define the electrification project, working with local communities, then Caltrain, local communities, and MTC should work together to put together funding for grade separations and other local enhancements that are needed for traffic mitigation and safety.
Important work is still needed to find the funding for a critical piece of the puzzle that is not included in this phase. The funding does not cover Downtown Extension to Transbay (DTX). This segment is needed to meet the requirements of Prop 1A for High Speed Rail. DTX will be very valuable for the region’s commuters since there are 10x the number of jobs in downtown San Francisco than at 4th and King.
MOU wisely stays out of local design decisions
The MOU does not record the feedback from many communities about specific local design needs, such as, for example, Burlingame’s plan for Broadway grade separation. This silence is a good thing. We do not want MTC documents planning, or otherwise expressing opinions about these critical local design decisions. That work belongs in the hands of Caltrain as the lead agency on the project, working closely with local communities.
The MOU also does not rule out a short section of passing track, which was identified as an option in Caltrain’s capacity analysis. Without passing tracks, the corridor can carry 6 Caltrains and 2 High Speed Rail trains per direction per hour at peak. With passing track, the corridor can carry up to 4 High Speed Trains. But, there is no
funding for the passing tracks, and the first stage of the plan does not include them.
The passing tracks will not be needed until (and unless) HSR gets to San Jose. More analysis and evidence will be needed to determine whether the passing tracks will be needed. By comparison, on the busiest passenger rail corridor in the country, Amtrak runs one express Acela and 1-2 local trains per peak
hour per direction between New York and DC. If in the future the trains are full, and it is much more expensive to fly or drive, the decision will look very different.
Protecting Baby Bullet service revenue
One of the ideas brought up at Burlingame City Council was to ensure that Caltrain gets revenue if riders take high speed trains as an express commute service from San Jose to San Francisco. That topic is not discussed in the MOU (and it shouldn’t be) but it is an important topic to consider for customer service and for Caltrain’s financial
viability (how not to cannibalize baby bullet revenue).
The Early Investment plan has come together rapidly in recent months, and the process to gather stakeholder feedback was rushed. It would have been better to have Caltrain complete the 2 year planning process to define exactly what is wanted in the electrification project, working closely with stakeholders, and then apply for funding with a clear plan. Especially on the Peninsula, where there are 17 cities between San Francisco and San Jose, the process was particularly strained.
But High Speed Rail needs to put together a credible business plan now, this spring, in order to have a chance of gaining legislative authorization to move the project forward. It made sense to include the “Early Investment” now because that makes for a better plan which provides value earlier.
Come to the MTC meeting on March 28
The MTC meeting to review and make a decision about approving the Memorandum of Understanding is on Wednesday, March 28 at 9:30 am. The meeting is at MTC Headquarters at 101 8th street in Oakland. It is a long trip from much of the corridor to MTC headquarters in Oakland, but it will be valuable for Caltrain stakeholders to attend this critical meeting. This is an important decision that will affect our region for decades if High Speed Rail goes forward this year.