Mountain View Voice

Opinion - March 7, 2014

Plans emerge for electrified Caltrain

Cities along the busy Caltrain corridor may be in for a shock if plans to electrify the now diesel-powered locomotives are approved. The draft environmental impact report (DEIR) has just been released and now can be viewed at the Mountain View Public Library.

If the $1.5 billion plan is adopted, people will see substantial changes along the two-track corridor, including hundreds of poles up to 50 feet high on either side of the right-of-way to support the overhead wires that will transmit power to the trains. To clear a path for the power poles up to 2,200 trees may need to be removed along the corridor, with 284 trees identified for the chopping block in Mountain View. Sunnyvale is expected to lose 497 trees, the most of any city affected by the project. In addition, the report estimates 3,616 trees along the route will need to be pruned.

Although as a federally funded rail carrier Caltrain is exempt from local regulations applying to tree removal, the impact report includes a strategy to mitigate loss of trees by locating poles and alignments to "minimize tree removal and pruning" and remove trees only as necessary to provide safety clearance. A plan to be developed with cities and a certified arborist along the corridor would consider the best way to replace and protect trees.

Electrification has long been a goal of the Joint Powers Board that operates the trains, making service noticeably faster, producing less pollution and noise and be able to make more trips — up to 114 weekday trains compared to the present level of 92. The railroad carried an average of 47,000 weekday riders last year, a number that is projected to grow to 57,000 by 2020 and 84,000 after that, even without electrification.

Besides the loss of trees, city residents will give up a view as they cross bridges over the tracks. The rail line plans to install 6.5 feet tall safety barriers on many existing bridges to prevent access to the Caltrain corridor below and to stop objects from being thrown off the bridges onto the trains or tracks. The current plan is to install barriers on bridges in both directions on San Antonio Road, Shoreline Boulevard, the Stevens Creek pedestrian crossing, at Whisman Road and Highway 237.

Electrification was unfunded and dormant until 2012, when then-state Sen. Joe Simitian, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon struck a deal with the High Speed Rail Authority to upgrade and then share Caltrain tracks to bring HSR from San Jose to San Francisco. To do so, the Caltrain system would be electrified and other improvements made so faster trains could pass slower trains, even those still using diesel power, along the two-track corridor.

The deal was a coup for Caltrain, which finally may receive funds to get the project started. The HSR authority will pay for about half of the $1.5 billion cost, with the rest coming from Caltrain and other Bay Area transportation agencies.

Caltrain says comments on the impact report will be accepted until April 29. Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon called the report "the next step in a critical partnership between Caltrain and the communities we serve." He added that the agency is "...committed to seeking public comment and to make sure the concerns of our communities are addressed directly, collaboratively and transparently."

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