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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.

Silicon Valley Leadership Group predicts Caltrain ridership doubling again next decade

The goal for the next decade of Caltrain service should be to enable ridership to double once again, said Shiloh Ballard of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, speaking on behalf of CEO Carl Guardino, at at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Caltrain’s baby bullet service.

When the Baby Bullet launched in 2004, Caltrain had about 24,000 average daily boarding; today, ridership is now over 60,000. Ballard’s prediction of 120,000 riders by 2024 would put Caltrain ridership 15 years ahead of the modest growth predictions in Caltrain’s electrification environmental study, which predicts 110,000 riders by 2040. The underlying trends driving ridership- including generational shifts in transportation preferences and transit-oriented development on the corridor show no signs of stopping.

To achieve this goal, said Ballard, Caltrain will need a package of investments, including longer platforms to support longer trains, all-electric service and level boarding to provide a schedule to smooth out capacity peaks, and grade separations to help support more frequent service.

The Baby Bullet anniversary event marked the launch of a coalition of major employers, including Google, Oracle, LinkedIn, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, focused on advocating to gather the resources needed to fund and implement the needed capacity improvements.

Since the Leadership Group plays a key role in raising transportation tax funding in Santa Clara County their resolve will be important in ensuring that the upcoming 2016 tax measure will include provisions to support, not only basic electrification, but a package of add-on improvements to support needed capacity increases.

In addition to Caltrain, Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council talked about planning and funding additional transit improvements to support demand on the North/South corridor, including ferry service and carpool lanes. Both Ash Kalra, of San Jose City Council and the Caltrain Board, and Jeff Gee, of Redwood City City Council and the SamTrans board, talked about the need for improved connectivity between Caltrain, SamTrans, VTA, BART and other services. The public and private sector resolve to create high-capacity, integrated transit service is promising. Next steps will be the plans around ballot measures, Cap and Trade, and other sources to fund the improvements needed to support the next decade of ridership growth.

Dumbarton Policy Committee seeks to continue, despite MTC abandonment

On Friday, Dumbarton Rail Policy Advisory Committee – composed of elected officials in the communities that would be served by the project, including Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Fremont, Union City and Newark – resolved to continue on the project, despite the fact that MTC has recently repurposed the project’s funding, largely for the Silicon Valley BART project. Smaller amounts were divvied up for Caltrain modernization and improving the Dumbarton bus service. The rail project was de-funded after the last Alameda County transit ballot measure failed at the polls, leaving the project without enough funding to move forward. However, there is still a remaining $5Million bridge toll fund stream paying to run AC Transit buses over the Dumbarton bridge.

At the MTC meeting when the funds were being de-allocated, MTC board member and San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier reassured concerned project supporters that after the Caltrain electrification EIR was completed this coming winter, that there would be renewed efforts to restart the project. Instead, the MTC decided to remove its representation from the committee.

Despite these blows, Policy Committee members resolved to keep working on the project. In the paper packet for the Policy Committee meeting was a letter from Facebook, whose headquarters are at the base of the Dumbarton Bridge, expressing strong continuing interest in the project. According to Jim Bigelow of Redwood City/Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, other major employers also support keeping the project alive. In addition, at community meetings gathering input for an update to Menlo Park’s General Plan, there have been frequent recommendations and encouragement to use of the Dumbarton rail corridor to ease travel between Redwood City, Facebook, and the East Bay.

Disused Dumbarton Rail Bridge

The challenge is to find enough resources for staff to look for alternative sources of funds. In response to questioning from Menlo Park Council Member Kirsten Keith, staff representative April Chan admitted that because her primary responsibilities lie with Caltrain and SamTrans, it would be a conflict of interest to look for funds for a different transit project. Policy Committee members discussed the possibility of creating a Joint Powers Authority to raise money to bootstrap the process of seeking implementation funding. According to chair Carol Dutra-Vernaci, Mayor of Union City, if the upcoming November Alameda Measure BB passes, that will at least provide enough money for staff to get started.

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.

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