High Speed Rail EIR leapfrogged by Caltrain, Diridon planning

Community members in San Francisco, San Mateo County (Burlingame) and San Jose all had questions about High Speed Rail’s planning having gotten out of synch with regional planning efforts, at community working group meetings in July held by the High Speed Rail Authority held community working group meetings to review the staff “preferred alternative” for sections from San Francisco through San Jose and San Jose to Merced for its Environmental Impact Report (EIR). 

The two big areas of misalignment were the topics of passing tracks on the Caltrain corridor, and Diridon Station in San Jose. 

Read on if you’re interested – letters about the EIR sent to the High Speed Rail board by August 22 will be put in the packet for the board to review.  Comments should be sent to san.francisco_san.jose@hsr.ca.gov

Passing Tracks not needed – based on obsolete analysis

Over the last year, Caltrain has been working on a Business Plan for the era of electrification. Motivated by studies showing pent-up demand to increase ridership by 3-4x, the Caltrain board is now heading toward decisions that will likely favor more frequent, and more regular service compared to the 6-train, irregular service pattern studied for the electrification EIR.  Caltrain is looking at schedules that would provide from 8 to 12 Caltrain trains per direction per hour, with a “clockface” schedule with base service of 15 minute intervals at many stations. Passing tracks will be required to achieve higher ridership and better quality service, according to Caltrain’s business plan analysis. 

But High Speed Rail has been using Caltrain’s older studies and older assumptions in assessing the infrastructure needs to run High Speed Rail service between San Jose and San Francisco.  Based on these older assumptions, High Speed Rail has proposed a “preferred alternative” that doesn’t include any passing tracks. High Speed Rail’s conclusions are understandable because HSR started their study before Caltrain had finished their analysis and decisions.  The Caltrain board is expected to finalize its service vision decisions in early 2020.  

The last published date for High Speed Rail service between San Francisco and Bakersfield was 2029 – a decade from now. The next updated draft schedule is expected out in the 2020 HSR business plan, slated for draft release in February 2020.

So, if High Speed Rail pursues adding service between San Francisco and San Jose after Caltrain is already running 8 trains per hour with a regular, clockface schedule, and no passing tracks were added, then Caltrain service would be severely degraded.

Diridon Station

Diridon Station planning has created another situation where High Speed Rail’s EIR is getting out of synch with current plans. The Diridon Integrated Station Concept Planning Process is coming up with new alternatives to integrate High Speed Rail into an upgraded multi-modal station.   But the DISC process is considering options that are different from the alternatives that High Speed Rail is recommending. https://www.diridonsj.org

A snapshot in time, while time moves on…   

At the community working group meetings, High Speed Rail’s Boris Lipkin acknowledged that the material in its EIR was likely to be superceded by newer planning processes for Diridon Station and the Caltrain corridor.    Lipkin acknowledged that High Speed Rail would need to issue supplemental studies to cover things that have changed, before they move forward to plan to build. There is plenty of time for supplemental studies since HSR is expected to take more than a decade to arrive, and the details of Caltrain service, and possibly connecting service such as Dumbarton, will likely change multiple times during that decade. 

The graph below, presented by HSR to Caltrain’s Local Policymaker Working Group seems to indicate that High Speed Rail intends to update its study incorporating input from the Caltrain business plan.  If that’s a correct reading, that would be welcome. 

The goal of an EIR is to disclose environmental impacts of a project so decisionmakers can mitigate those impacts. But an EIR is a snapshot in time, analyzing the impacts that could be assessed at the point in time when it is published. 

So how to protect Caltrain corridor service?

By law, the EIR process requires the lead agency (HSRA) to publish and respond to comments.

So, given the need for future updates, it seems like a reasonable approach to put comments on record that rail plans for the Peninsula Corridor are a moving target.  When it is planning to provide service, High Speed Rail will need to update its studies to cover the conditions at that time. In the likely event that there are impacts (such as messing up Caltrain’s future, frequent, clockface schedule), then those impacts will need to be mitigated (such as with passing tracks).   

And it seems reasonable to get HSR on the record, that they plan to update their plans once the broader multi-modal plans for Diridon Station are complete.  

Summary: get HSRA on the record that they will update their studies when facts change, and will be required to mitigate impacts disclosed in the new studies. 

What do you think of this approach?

Legal protection for Caltrain’s schedule, and land needed for HSR

Also, Caltrain needs legal agreements for track-sharing with High Speed Rail.  We hope they get good attorneys with rail corridor management experience, who can craft an agreement regarding High Speed Rail’s right to use the corridor, without a right to use the corridor in a way that degrades local and regional service.

Some other comments at the public meetings focused on land that HSR will need to run the service. High Speed Rail plans to use land in Brisbane for train storage and light maintenance.  While High Speed Rail has been working on its EIR, Brisbane has approved a General Plan allowing development at the Baylands site. High Speed Rail staff recommend using the East side of the site for the maintenance facility.  

At a meeting in Brisbane, the City Council was not supportive of the use of the Brisbane site for a High Speed Railyard.  

But by law, once the EIR is finalized, the High Speed Rail authority has the right to buy and use the land, with a willing seller if possible, and using eminent domain to purchase the property otherwise.  The Brisbane Baylands developer stated that they acknowledge that High Speed Rail has the right to condemn the land, but if so, they contend it would be impossible to build the development in a way that met the city’s goal for the development to not cost the city money.

Given uncertainty about High Speed Rail budget for future sections, the question is whether, after the EIR is approved, the HSRA will advance money to buy and protect the railyard land.

Somewhat similarly, at a meeting in Millbrae, a local developer expressed concern about plans to modify Millbrae station for High Speed Rail service, and spoke strongly about his goal to use that land for a development project near the station, including an intention to sue for the right to build on the land.  Unfortunately, based on our understanding, that land is owned by Caltrain. A developer wouldn’t have the right to build without permission on land that Caltrain owns.