Why so expensive? Deciphering and improving Caltrain network cost-benefit scores

At first glance, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s estimate of the Caltrain network entries seems extremely expensive, and would put at risk the opportunity to triple or quadruple transit ridership on the Peninsula Corridor. At a closer look, the scores show idiosyncrasies and difficulties in the modeling, and some opportunities to reassess in ways that will highlight the benefits.

Network connections – 2+2=5

Caltrain capacity increases and the downtown extension on their own look grim from a cost-benefit perspective.  But if you add a second northern transbay crossing including conventional rail, the picture brightens. The programs – though very expensive, show a positive return on investment except in a future with a declining economy.

The conclusion is that the Bay Area’s tradition of evaluating transit network projects, in segments submitted piecemeal agency by agency, is deeply flawed. We would be much better off if we started by planning the network as a network where the whole was designed to be greater than the sum of the parts.

High Speed Rail – missing benefits or hidden costs

The Caltrain business plan investment proposals that were submitted to the MTC included, baked in, a set of passing tracks that will be needed only when High Speed Rail is serving the Peninsula Corridor.  Our understanding, though, is that the benefits of the investments only consider travel on the Peninsula Corridor, and not the added benefits of the statewide and inter-regional trips that would be provided by High Speed Rail.  A fair scoring would add the benefits, or deduct the costs.

The latest dates from the High Speed Rail authority indicate that we won’t see service on the Peninsula Corridor until 2033, and available evidence suggests that later dates are more likely than sooner. Also, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are on record to the effect that the cost share of the infrastructure to serve High Speed Rail will need to be re-examined closer to when HSR is planning for Peninsula service.  So a reasonable approach could be to filter the cost of High Speed Rail components out of the Bay Area Region’s transportation plan for now, and revisit them with a better picture of the benefits.and costs, including the region’s share of the costs. These plans are updated every 4 years, there will be time to update.

Meaningful project segments

While the overall value of a regional network program may be high, the costs look overwhelming. The cost of the growth scenarios for Caltrain include (and therefore double-count) the costs of the Downtown Extension, Diridon Hub Station, and passing tracks that are needed only for High Speed Rail.  

Now that the Caltrain board has decided on its direction for the Business Plan Service Vision, staff is planning to go back to create a more meaningful phased roadmap of improvements, which might break out sub-programs such as longer trains with level boarding (which would add capacity and speed), and Redwood City Passing tracks with more frequent service (which would add capacity). These programs may have more manageable-looking price tags that clearly show the benefits for the costs.

Dumbarton Rail – what connection assumptions?

The Dumbarton Rail project is also listed with poor price-performance. But it is not clear what, if any, network connections are included in the assessment of benefits. Does it assume a BART connection? Does it assume connections to ACE trains to the Central Valley and Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento? These assumptions could make a big difference in the benefits, but it’s not clear what assumptions are being made. 

More Hidden Fare Assumptions 

Comparing the Caltrain network projects also reveals another set of hidden fare policy assumptions that shapes the equity assessment results. The Caltrain projects and Downtown Extension show poor equity outcomes, while the transbay crossings using Conventional Rail have neutral equity scores. Why? Apparently the Transbay Crossing program is proposed to have fares set to serve a diverse ridership.  This is another example where fare policy should be treated explicitly as a variable, and fare equity should be considered as a regional policy issue with regional solutions.

Watch for revisions

Now that these scores are out and the consequences of the scoring method is clearer, it should be possible to refine the packaging and the policies to have programs of investment that show better cost-benefit, including improved fare policies for better equity.  The good news about this round of regional transportation planning is that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is expecting to have projects refined to improve results and show their benefits more clearly.

The region needs to do a much better job of network planning

Caltrain planner Sebastian Petty offered a clear summary of the issue: “Where you have large-scale rail projects that are complicated, high dollar, phased over time, whose outcome depends on network factors, a piece by piece evaluation is not enough to effectively evaluate those projects.” 

The MTC’s scoring process this time around points to a range of opportunities to improve network planning, starting with improvements this cycle.  See this blog post from Seamless Bay Area for a broader proposal for how to upgrade transit network planning and operations to create a seamless system regional transit system.