MTC approves last-minute list of Caltrain corridor grade separations for federal funding

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved a list of Caltrain corridor grade separation projects to compete for up to $8 billion in federal funding.

Overall, separating the Caltrain tracks from the roadways they cross will make the line more reliable and provide more safety on the corridor, and improve crossing for people driving, walking and bicycling. The opportunity for federal funding is extremely helpful for these costly projects.

However, the package of projects to pursue funding appeared for the first time on Wednesday morning before the Commission meeting started.

There is no public material about the criteria by which projects have been selected, and no public material about the steps that jurisdictions can take to cause their projects to advance and qualify for selection.  here had been no discussion at MTC committees, which is the normal practice. There had been no presentation at the Caltrain Local Policymaker Working Group, which is the typical place where local elected officials learn about initiatives for corridor grade separations and Caltrain modernization.

Previously, it had been stated that the list of at-grade crossings from the California Public Utilities Commission would be used to prioritize projects. However, only one of the top 3 projects on the CPUC list in San Mateo County was included on the MTC list.

Apparently, MTC staff had gone to each of the counties and asked for recommendations.

* In San Francisco, there is one major project, the Pennsylvania Avenue Extension of the tunnel that will bring trains to and from the Salesforce transit Center. The cost of this project has been estimated at over $2 billion not counting the cost of the station that would likely be needed to replace the 22nd street station

* Santa Clara County had approved funding for grade separations as part of 2016 Measure B, and VTA had identified a process to fund projects

* In San Mateo County, the City/County Association of Governments which serves as the congestion management agency had voted to support the Broadway project at Burlingame, which is on the top of the CPUC list, for funding. But there had been no public discussion of other projects to prioritize at that body or at the San Mateo County Transportation Authority which manages the county’s tax funds for transportation.

The San Mateo County list did not include Menlo Park’s project, where the City Council had chosen a preferred alternative. Nor did it include the Redwood City project which is at an early stage of development but has transportation benefits that are extremely important for the corridor as a whole.

In San Mateo County, according to staff from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, it is up to each city to take the lead on the projects in its jurisdiction, and to be proactive in advancing it through the planning and design process. The Menlo Park and Redwood City projects were at a lower level of readiness than would qualify for the available federal funding.

However, given the importance of corridor grade separations to Caltrain and the state, it would be helpful to have a more systematic process with support for cities to advance the projects in those cities.

At the MTC Commission meeting, staff also observed that the grade separation project list would be revisited over the next 5 years.

Going forward, at MTC committees, the Caltrain Local Policymaker Working Group, and especially at some public body in San Mateo County, it will be helpful to have an explanation of the rationale for the project selection that has been made to date, and an explanation of the steps and milestones that are required for projects to advance in the process.

Making this process more transparent, with more support for cities with projects, will be helpful for the corridor as a whole.