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Mountain View Voice

News - May 20, 2011

Caltrain rethinks high-speed rail

by Gennady Sheyner

A recent decision to start California's high-speed-rail line in Central Valley has prompted Caltrain to reconsider its seven-year-old partnership with the agency overseeing the controversial rail project, Caltrain officials said at a Town Hall meeting in Palo Alto Tuesday morning, May 17.

Santa Clara Supervisor Liz Kniss, who sits on Caltrain's governing board, hosted the meeting in Palo Alto City Hall to update the community about Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and its efforts to electrify the financially troubled train system. But the discussion also touched on California's controversial high-speed-rail project, a sore subject around the Peninsula.

The high-speed-rail line is slated to stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and to pass through the Peninsula along the Caltrain corridor. In 2004, four years before California voters approved a $9 billion bond for the new rail line, the rail authority and Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which oversees Caltrain, entered into an agreement to work together on the new rail line. In 2009 the parties amended the agreement.

The arrangement seemed like a win-win situation. The rail authority needed Caltrain's right-of-way to make the system work, while Caltrain officials saw the rail project as a possible way to electrify the popular but cash-strapped system. But with high-speed rail facing its own financial challenges, as well as increasing skepticism from Peninsula residents, Caltrain is giving this partnership a second thought.

At Tuesday's meeting, several audience members questioned Caltrain's partnership with the rail authority and encouraged the JPB to take a more assertive stance. Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack said Caltrain should have a greater say in its partnership with the rail authority.

Kniss said the relationship between the agencies has always been tentative and subject to changes.

"It's like many arrangements," Kniss said. "I'd call it, maybe they were in the engagement phase.

"Caltrain got the ring but never got a wedding band."

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said his agency entered into a partnership with the rail authority because it felt the high-speed-rail project could help it achieve the ultimate goal of electrifying the Caltrain system, a goal that he and Kniss say is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the popular commuter service.

He also said Caltrain has been "rethinking our relationship with high-speed rail" since the rail authority approved a plan to start the line in Central Valley. The plan has prompted many legislators, watchdogs and concerned citizens to wonder whether the Peninsula segment will ever get built. On the bright side, the plan created a welcome reprieve for many Peninsula officials who felt the project is moving too fast and in the wrong direction.

"I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the money went to Central Valley and we had ourselves a little more time to reach these decisions and think about what we can do," Simon told the audience Tuesday morning.

Some on the Peninsula still hope the high-speed-rail line and Caltrain can work together. Last month, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, proposed a plan in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would "blend" on the Peninsula. The plan calls for an electrified Caltrain system that would serve high-speed-rail passengers on the San Jose-to-San Francisco segment of the line.

The plan met a cool reception at the most recent meeting of the rail authority's board of directors. Several members, including board Chair Curt Pringle, suggested that the proposal could be little more than an attempt by Peninsula legislators to take money from the high-speed rail and use it for Caltrain's needs.

For Caltrain, the uncertainty over the Peninsula segment means it has to look for other ways to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to electrify the system. The three partnering agencies have already set aside $269 million for the project and expect to receive about $350 million more in grants. Even so, Caltrain is still looking for about $640 million to make electrification possible, said Marian Lee, Caltrain's executive officer for planning and development.

The capital project is one of two major funding challenges the agency is wrestling with. Caltrain, which has no permanent, dedicated funding sources, is facing a structural budget gap of about $30 million. The shortfall can be attributed largely to decreases in voluntary contributions from the three partner agencies that support the commuter service -- the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Simon and Kniss said Tuesday that switching Caltrain from diesel to electricity would reduce emissions by 90 percent as well as cut down noise. The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" — a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.

Caltrain has already completed a draft Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project and hopes to certify the state-mandated document this summer.


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