Peninsula cities and transportation officials see California's proposed high-speed rail system as both a looming threat and a golden opportunity -- a project that could both burden the area with unwanted noise, new barriers and property seizures and provide it with the funds for long-coveted transportation improvement.
Both dynamics, the fear and the hope, are in play these days as Bay Area transportation agencies and cities are trying to reach a consensus on "early investment opportunities" that the rail project could bring to the region. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrain and cities between San Francisco and San Jose are now preparing a "memorandum of understanding" that would lay out the Bay Area's priorities when it comes to projects that could benefit from rail funds in the short term. The California High Speed Rail Authority is scheduled to consider the cities' input in early April.
Marian Lee, director of the Caltrain's modernization program, wrote in a recent report that the rail authority has reached out to Caltrain and other transportation agencies.
"The early investment projects would be those needed to modernize the Caltrain system and support the blended Caltrain and high-speed rail system," Lee wrote.
Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's manager of government affairs, said up to $1 billion in high-speed rail funds would be available for "early investment" improvements. Cities and transportation agencies would need to match some of this money with funding from other sources. The projects would be required to both benefit the $98.5 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles high-speed-rail project, which California voters approved in 2008, and provide "independent utility" -- that is, benefits that would be experienced even if the entire system isn't built.
At the top of Caltrain's wish list is its long-standing plan to electrify its corridor -- an improvement that officials say would greatly boost the popular but cash-strapped agency's ridership and revenue figures. Caltrain currently doesn't have dedicated funding and relies heavily on contributions from the three agencies that comprise its board of directors -- the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans).
At a March 1 meeting of Palo Alto City Council's Rail Committee, Murphy called electrification "critically important" for the agency's plan to close its structural deficit. The electrification project would also have a major impact on high-speed rail, which eventually would run along the Caltrain corridor. Prior to the entire line being completed, however, high-speed-rail passengers would disembark in San Jose and then have to transfer to Caltrain to reach San Francisco.
Murphy said Caltrain's diesel trains would not be able to support the influx of transferring riders, which he pegged at about 14,000 a day.
"Our ability to add service to support new passengers is very contained," Murphy said. "If we electrify the system, we would be able to accommodate those passengers who get off at San Jose."
Caltrain estimates the electrification of the corridor to cost about $785 million. Other priority projects on the agency's list include new electric trains ($440 million) and an advanced signal system ($231 million).
Murphy said a similar conversation about early investment opportunities is taking place in southern California, where seven transportation agencies have already signed a memorandum of understanding listing their preferences for these opportunities.
The conversation between Caltrain and the high-speed rail over early investment opportunities is taking place at a time when there are still disagreements between the two agencies over what the rail line would ultimately look like. Caltrain has embraced a proposal by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to create a "blended system" in which Caltrain and high-speed rail share two tracks on the Peninsula.
Murphy said a recent study indicated that a blended design could work and that the shared tracks would accommodate up to 10 trains per hour (six Caltrain trains and four high-speed trains) in each direction if the system includes passing tracks or eight trains per hour (six Caltrain trains and two high-speed trains) if it does not.
But last month, the rail authority released a revised program Environmental Impact Report for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley segment of the line that focuses on the highly controversial four-track system -- a design that according to the document could require Alma Street in Palo Alto to narrow.
On Feb. 15, the rail authority released a statement saying it is still considering the blended design and that its revised 2012 business plan will highlight this approach.
Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium, said any agreement between cities, Caltrain and the rail authority over early-investment opportunities should include provisions explicitly calling for mitigation of project impacts (including noise, vibration and traffic) and stipulating that the rail authority's project-level Environmental Impact Report (which focuses on specific segments and includes more engineering details than the "program-level" EIR) focus on the blended option.