With new plan, Caltrain prepares for ridership surge

Agency looks to add trains, take a more proactive role in 'grade separation' projects

Facing persistent funding challenges, a growing ridership base and a patchwork of plans from Peninsula cities for redesigning rail crossings, Caltrain is advancing a new business plan to help it navigate the competing pressures.

According to the plan, which has been in the works since 2017, daily ridership could soar to between 161,000 and 207,000 passengers by 2040, up from the current level of 62,000 daily riders, as a result of Caltrain's pending electrification project and the system's expansion to downtown San Francisco.

To prepare for that level of service, the plan examines costs, benefits, different service models and potential investments. It also includes the improvements that the agency would like to make to existing stations, tracks and platforms and considers expansion to new terminals in San Francisco and San Jose.

Most crucially for Palo Alto and other Midpeninsula cities that are exploring ways to separate local streets from the tracks at grade crossings, Caltrain's new plan will consider the types of investments the agency could make in these projects. As such, it could profoundly affect Palo Alto's evolving grade-separation plan, which the City Council hopes to finalize by October.

The business plan, which the council is set to discuss at its May 13 meeting, considers three different growth scenarios: "baseline," moderate and high (161,000, 185,000 and 207,000 daily riders, respectively). During peak commute periods, the maximum number of passengers on board the most packed train is expected to increase from the existing level of 3,900 riders to 8,700 riders in the 2040 "baseline" scenario and to 9,900 and to 11,500 riders in the moderate- and high-growth scenarios, respectively.

To accommodate the new riders, Caltrain plans to both run more -- and larger -- trains. By 2040, Caltrain expects to run six hourly trains, which would share the tracks with four high-speed rail trains for a total of 10 trains per hour under the baseline scenario. In the moderate-growth scenario, Caltrain would run eight trains per hour, while in the high-growth scenarios there would be 10 (both scenarios still assume that there would be four high-speed-rail trains per hour, notwithstanding the deep uncertainty over whether and when the Peninsula segment of high-speed rail would actually get built).

While the greater train frequency is expected to accommodate the expected ridership growth, it also will create a significant challenge for the communities along the rail corridor: increased delays for traffic waiting at the rail intersections, known as gate down times. According to a staff presentation that the Caltrain board of directors heard on May 2, gate down times today range from 6 minutes to 17 minutes per hour during the peak weekday commute hours.

Separation anxieties

Without reconfiguring the Peninsula's intersections of railroad tracks and local streets, the down times will increase significantly by 2040. Caltrain staff projects that the average down time under the "baseline" scenario would be 17 minutes per hour, while in the moderate- and high-growth scenarios it would be 20 and 25 minutes, respectively. At some Caltrain stations, including ones in San Francisco, Redwood City and San Jose, the gates would be down for more than 30 minutes every hour, in some cases (San Jose) for 35 minutes or more.

In Palo Alto, the gate down time at Palo Alto Avenue would be about 22 minutes under the high-growth scenario (it would be 13 and 14 minutes in the "baseline" and moderate-growth scenarios, respectively). At the city's other three at-grade crossings -- Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road -- the down time would range between 12 and 18 minutes, according to the May 2 presentation. That's more than double the current down time, which ranges from six to eight minutes per hour during peak hours.

The prospect of more trains running along the corridor, requiring more gate closures and creating traffic jams on crossing roads, is the primary driver of Palo Alto's multi-year effort to reconfigure the four crossings. The most ambitious and expensive idea on the table is a tunnel extending from one end of the city to the other -- an option that remains despite the view of several council members that it's far too expensive to be feasible.

Other options call for the closure of Churchill to car traffic and separating Meadow and Charleston from the tracks through a viaduct, a trench or a "hybrid" design that combines raised tracks and lowered streets. Palo Alto plans to evaluate changes to Palo Alto Avenue as part of a future study of the broader downtown area.

For Palo Alto, much like for Caltrain, the largest wildcard is funding. The city is banking on receiving a portion of the $700 million that Santa Clara County's Measure B designated for grade separations. The city is also exploring the idea of placing a business tax on the November 2020 ballot, with revenues earmarked for transportation improvements such as grade separations.

Caltrain is also recognizing the increasing urgency of separating tracks from roads at its 42 at-grade intersections. Its plan for 2040 will consider "substantially expanded investment in grade-crossing improvements and separations," according to the May 2 presentation. Since 1992, when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority assumed ownership of Caltrain, six grade-separation projects have been implemented (in Millbrae, North Fair Oaks, Redwood City, Belmont, San Carlos and San Bruno) and one is pending (in San Mateo).

"This is clearly an important issue for the corridor as a whole and for all the individual communities on the corridor," Sebastian Petty, a senior policy analyst at Caltrain, told the board on May 2.

But while important, grade separations throughout the Caltrain corridor are expected to cost between $8.5 billion and $11.1 billion. Caltrain senior policy analyst Sebastian Petty noted at the May 2 meeting that there really is no source of funding today that could cover these projects. Board member Charles Stone likened any proposal to fund the project as a "layer cake" composed of multiple funding sources, including potentially the federal government (he acknowledged that, at this time, this is an unlikely prospect).

The funding challenges notwithstanding, board members lauded Caltrain staff's new approach to planning for grade separations . Board member Dave Pine, a San Mateo County supervisor, called Caltrain's comprehensive look at grade separations an "important moment" for the agency, given that past decisions about the topic were done on an ad hoc basis.

"It's a big deal that we're doing this study and we're going to start to think about this comprehensively," Pine said.

His colleagues concurred and noted that Caltrain will have to coordinate more with cities to make these projects a reality. Board member Jeannie Bruins, a Los Altos councilwoman who is representing the Midpeninsula cities on the Caltrain board, said it's important for cities to view grade separation as a regional issue.

"It's a broader issue, and everyone along the corridor needs to appreciate that modifying one (crossing) here and there isn't going to do much in terms of us being able to achieve the level of services that we can," Bruins said.

To tax or not to tax?

One idea that Caltrain is now considering as part of its plan to increase service is a 2020 tax. The Caltrain board saw a presentation on May 2 about a new survey that was conducted by the firm EMC Research that's exploring potential support for a tax measure. It concluded that while a healthy majority residents recognize the importance of raising money for transportation, voters are not totally sold on approving a sales-tax increase for Caltrain, which would require approval from more than 66 percent of voters.

In the three counties served by Caltrain, voters have "an interest and willingness to invest in improvements to improve public transit and reduce traffic congestion," the survey found. At the same time, support for a revenue measure fell just below the needed 2/3 level.

When asked about a potential 30-year sales tax to fund Caltrain improvements, 63% of the responders said they would support such a measure, while 33% indicated their opposition (3% were undecided). Support was particularly high among the state's registered Democrats (74% support), Caltrain riders (72%) and voters younger than 50 (69%).

The survey suggests that Caltrain's biggest challenge in pursuing a tax increase is convincing Santa Clara County voters (who make up 49% of the total) it's worthwhile. While voters in San Mateo and San Francisco counties would support such a measure by large margins (68% and 67%, respectively), in Santa Clara County the approval rate was 61%.

"There is significant interest from the community in improving Caltrain, particularly as a way to relieve traffic congestion and speed travel along the Peninsula," the executive summary of the EMC's report states. "While it's not quite at the required two-thirds support today, with the right environment and effort a sales-tax measure for Caltrain may be feasible in 2020."

The Caltrain board broadly acknowledged that while a tax increase remains a possibility for 2020, the effort will require significant outreach work to achieve approval of 2/3 of voters. Board member Pine said the survey illustrates that it will take "a very robust campaign to get it over the threshold." Board member Charles Stone concurred but also said he was encouraged by the level of support for transportation improvement.

"I'm buoyed by the fact that members of the public sure as heck seem to value this organization and its impact on traffic, if nothing else," Stone said.

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2 people like this
Posted by Jes' Sayin'
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on May 3, 2019 at 12:33 pm

They should have different trains. Right now, having to walk up and down stairs to get on them wastes a lot of time. Very inefficient. Train floor should be at ground level so people can get on and off quickly.

7 people like this
Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 3, 2019 at 3:28 pm

Mountain View should fight to get there fair share of grade crossing money and not let Palo Alto and other cities receive all the money.
Mountain View should quickly set up a task for to devise and manage this process

2 people like this
Posted by Totally Wrong
a resident of Cuesta Park
on May 3, 2019 at 5:25 pm

Another attempt by Caltrain to spend more money and provide less service. There is no way these projections are correct. If anything they should raise prices to reflect the cost of providing train services and stop subsidizing passengers.

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