March 22–Hoping to bring the bonanza of California high-speed rail funds to the Bay Area much quicker, local and state leaders on Wednesday unveiled a strategy to split the $1.5 billion cost to electrify the Caltrain line.
The plan would pave the way for quicker commuter trains to zip between San Francisco and San Jose as early as 2018 and for statewide bullet trains to run sooner than expected.
The agreement calls for the state to spend $706 million in available high-speed rail bond funds while local counties would kick in $180 million in sales tax revenues and $500 million in federal grants. The money is there, and the only thing standing in the way is approval from the state Legislature, long divided on the state’s plan to spend $100 billion on high-speed rail.
The idea for the Peninsula is simple: Electrify the popular 52-mile Caltrain diesel line, complete with bigger stations in San Jose, Millbrae and San Francisco. That could allow the financially struggling commuter agency to turn around its fortunes by running more trains at a cheaper cost to taxpayers.
Later, perhaps in the 2020s, the state’s high-speed rail trains could share the two tracks with Caltrain if the state manages to secure the funding to link the Bay Area to the Central Valley and Southern California. Previous plans pegged statewide service to Los Angeles starting at 2034, with four tracks in the Bay Area.
“(The new plan) is the only way to approach the Peninsula corridor,” said Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, one of the lawmakers only willing to support a two-track option. “I think the reality is that this is probably all that we’re going to get done for quite some time, because there won’t be more money” for high-speed rail.
Though long in the works, the Peninsula plan is being sped up in response to two main criticisms of the state’s bullet train. First, along with a similar plan just approved in Southern California, it allows the state’s metropolitan areas their share of the massive bullet train pie as the state spends $6 billion to start building the railroad in the remote Central Valley early next year.
Also, the previous plan to build two extra tracks in the Bay Area has been panned as a waste of billions of dollars and is viewed by Peninsula critics as an intrusive, noisy and ugly railroad that would wipe out homes and businesses next to the line.
“Investment in the Caltrain corridor provides an opportunity to utilise the existing two-track system and right-of-way, while bringing early, tangible benefits to the San Jose-San Francisco Peninsula,” said Jim Hartnett, the Peninsula representative on the California High-Speed Rail Authority board.
The deal — among the rail authority, Bay Area transportation agencies, and the cities of San Francisco and San Jose — also includes new high-speed train stations at downtown San Jose’s Diridon Station and Millbrae, next to San Francisco International Airport, and would extend the line to the forthcoming Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. Construction will require the installation of overhead wires and power systems, some new rail bridges over streets and a federally required computer safety system, plus a load of new electric Caltrains.
Though the five-year construction project could begin as soon as next year, it’s unclear when state bullet trains could join electric Caltrains.
Next week, the rail authority is poised to release its final business plan, which will include an updated timeline expected to speed up earlier projections that full service won’t launch until 2034. The plan should also include a lower total cost, in part because of the savings from sharing tracks in the Bay Area, and updates to other key details.
Hartnett said the rail authority board, which has already signaled support for the Peninsula idea, would review the Bay Area’s plan at a coming meeting, after the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission signs the contract Wednesday. As soon as June, but likely in a later year, the Legislature, which initially has received the idea warmly, would have to approve spending the bond funds before construction could begin.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the project’s Peer Review Group — a panel of experts created by the Legislature that has criticised the current plan — told lawmakers the Bay Area plan is one of several necessary changes needed before lawmakers can unleash the bond funds.
Still, the Attorney General’s Office has yet to assert whether it’s legal. The idea may violate two provisions of the $9 billion bond measure voters approved in 2008: that the high-speed train extends to San Francisco, and that service be quick enough.
As a result, Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who heads a consortium of six critical Peninsula cities, said local communities still fear the rail authority will eventually build four tracks. He noted that Peninsula cities weren’t directly involved in the process.
“We think that is real problematic,” Burt said.
–$706 million: High-speed rail bond funds
–$500 million: Federal grants earmarked for Peninsula transit construction
–$180 million: Sales tax revenue split among Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties
–$24 million: State transit construction grants
–$20 million: Bay Area air quality grants
–$15 million: Caltrain grants earmarked for electrification
–$11 million: Bay Area bridge toll funds
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission
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