Transbay board meeting opens options on governance of electrified Caltrain

At Thursday’s Transbay board meeting, Caltrain’s Marian Lee,  Gabriel Metcalf for the SF Mayor’s office, Muni’s Ed Reiskin and other directors opened up a far-reaching conversation about how Caltrain will be governed in the age of electrification and the Downtown Extension to Transbay.  A consultant walked through various options for the DTX project to be built and financed, including a public private partnership, where a private entity would toll riders for the tunnel, and use the revenue to help finance the project and maintain it on an ongoing basis.   Marian Lee then asked the logical question.  If the Downtown Extension tunnel connecting Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal is run by a private company taking a toll for the tunnel, why stop there?  Why wouldn’t you have a single entity operating Caltrain and DTX? Or one entity running High Speed Rail, Caltrain, and DTX.

To explore the far-reaching consequences of these questions, the board agreed that the discussions would need to include the DTX team, Caltrain, the High Speed Rail Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and eventually the rest of 9 regional partners that are contributing funding for Caltrain modernization and the blended system with High Speed Rail.   Board discussions about the structure to complete DTX are expected to continue over the next several months.

Adding Caltrain’s operations to the picture, in the age of electrification and connection to downtown San Francisco – with lower operating costs and major increase in ridership – would make a very different business proposition for a private operator than taking a $1.25 toll to maintain a short segment of tunnel.    How would this work for transit riders, and for the public agency owners of the infrastructure?  What if a High Speed Rail operator ran Caltrain?  Are there good examples of organizations competently running long-distance train service as well as local commuter and utility transit?   How does putting these options on the table affect the funding of DTX – and potential alternative plans for funding electrification, if High Speed Rail’s roadblocks aren’t cleared up soon?

This is a big deal – agencies, riders, and others who depend on Caltrain will have important choices to understand and evaluate, that will shape how the rail corridor will modernize, how these major projects will be funded, and rail service will work for customers for many years to come.