Thursday, April 27, 2017

How to electrify Caltrain

Russ Cohen

by Gary Patton

Caltrain has long wanted to “electrify” its system. This has some benefits but downsides, too, like ugly, industrial-style catenaries up and down the Peninsula and cutting down thousands of trees.

Still, the official position, with broad public support, is that electrification would be positive. The Mercury has even claimed our economy “needs Caltrain electrification,” asserting that electrification is required for our prosperity.

To finance electrification, the costs for which are now estimated at about $2 billion, Caltrain has looked everywhere. It looked, for instance, to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for a $647 million grant. It also looked to the state’s High‑Speed Rail Authority for a $750 million contribution.

Just after the Trump Administration took office, the FTA indicated it would not fund Caltrain electrification at this time. Great consternation ensued. The Mercury News editorialized, Gov. Jerry Brown and business leaders went to Washington, and state and federal Democratic politicians howled.

The agony has been the more because Caltrain signed binding construction contracts based on their speculation that FTA funding would come through. This decision was made on Dec. 1, 2016. The Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail urged Caltrain not to speculate, and not to enter into those contracts. Its warnings were ignored.

Caltrain thought the “fix was in.” The grant was sent to Congress by Carolyn Flowers, then the Acting Director of the FTA. Within two weeks after signing off on it, Flowers took a job with AECOM, an engineering firm that works for Caltrain on the very same electrification project that Flowers had approved.

All Republican Party members of Congress from California asked the FTA to delay the grant. Was that “politics” or a concern about good policy? Likely the latter.

Their concern was with the direct connection between the electrification project and the state’s poorly-managed high‑speed rail project. Any claim that these are separate projects is without foundation. Don’t forget that $750 million grant from the high‑speed rail program.

As currently proposed, Caltrain electrification is inexorably tied to high-speed rail, and the worst part is what the state High-Speed Rail Authority would get for its $750 million. It would get an ownership interest in the Caltrain right of way, and that means the state’s high‑speed rail project would constrain local commuter capacity.

Caltrain would forfeit the ability to add up to four commuter trains per hour in each direction during peak hours. This capacity would be used for high-speed rail service, doing nothing to eliminate traffic gridlock. Were this project to go forward with the high-speed rail connection, Caltrain’s long-term capacity for commuters would be compromised, so the very purpose of electrification would be lost.

In 2013, talking about the California High‑Speed Rail Project, a Mercury News editorial said, “It’s time to put an end to this fraud.” More than three years later, this fraudulent project just keeps coming, and its latest victim is the Caltrain electrification project.

Given that High-Speed Rail would have stolen away most of the anticipated benefits for local commuters, the FTA’s action in withholding the grant is a blessing in disguise. 

There are less expensive electrification options, not requiring overhead catenaries, and there are lighter, lower-cost modern diesel alternatives, too (so-called Tier 4 trains, just approved for commuter service). These alternatives can do what everyone on the Peninsula wants for Caltrain at a much lower cost. 

Instead of being outraged at the FTA action, we should be relieved. Caltrain just dodged a bullet.

Gary A. Patton grew up in Palo Alto, was a Santa Cruz County Supervisor for 20 years and is an environmental attorney representing the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail based on the Peninsula. He wrote this for The Mercury News.

Thanks to The Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, the best source of information and analysis on this dumb project.

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