Monday, February 13, 2012

High-Voltage Non-News About High-Speed Rail

California's high-speed rail project has been in turmoil for over thirty years. This year is no different. The turmoil continues! 

Last year -- or was it the year before -- the plan was to start building on the Peninsula Caltrain corridor and on the 30 miles of rail corridor between Union Station in LA and Anaheim.

Well, what happened was that when the FRA made their stimulus award to California which, aggregated, amounts to around $3 billion, they attached strings. One of these required that the funds be spent by starting HSR construction in the Central Valley.  But, that's where most Californians don't live.  

They live in the LA Basin, and south to San Diego.  And they live in the Bay Area, south to San Jose.  Those population centers are also where most California voters live.  If you see what I mean. The idea is to spend federal dollars where the voters are, not where they are not. 

Not losing a beat, the rail authority switched all their plans, and even suggested that they thought of this idea first. Now the rail guys were determined to start in the Central Valley after all. (When you have no choice, you might as well act like you invented it. Plus, that's where the money was going.) The Bay Area and the LA Basin were put on hold until more funding was found. 

But, plans have a way of changing. As it became ever more obvious that there wouldn't be additional funds coming from the only source of HSR funds, the federal government, everybody became even more interested in the bird in the hand; that is, the already awarded $3.3 billion. Governor Brown was determined not to lose that at any cost. 

It also means that there is now a scramble for a piece of the action back in the Bay Area and the LA Basin. Caltrain and the electrifiers want funding for Caltrain electrification.  You understand, Caltrain doesn't need it; they just want it.  It's like wanting a more expensive neck-tie to look more impressive to your business associates.  

So, along comes high-speed rail with an offer Caltrain can't refuse. They signed a Memo of Understanding about it. The CHSRA gets to use the Caltrain corridor (forever), and the HSR guys will pay to electrify and grade separate the corridor.  Such a deal.  As it turned out, HSR didn't have enough money for anything other than the funds for the Central Valley. That became a problem.

It's also a problem for the politicians who now see those $6 billion as the last hope to get and spend those funds in their congressional districts.  The proposal on the table now is that the money gets divvied up between the Central Valley and northern and southern California.  Some of it would go to fix up Caltrain with electrification (good only for the temporary "blended option"), and some would go to fix up Metrolink in the LA Basin.

The scramble is on. There are so many issues and problems that this raises, it's hard to know where to begin.  One concept has been the locally promoted "blended plan" which seeks to eliminate the intrusive elevated viaduct that the HSR authority wants to build. That means they would use the current two tracks, electrify them and run both Caltrain commuter trains as well as some high-speed rail trains (but at no more than 110 mph) on the same tracks. THat would work for Caltrain, but it would only be an interim solution for HSR.  

Oh, yes, also Union Pacific's freight trains would run on those same tracks, as they do now. UPRR has absolute control over inter-city rail carriers on this corridor. That was part of the sales agreement whereby Caltrain bought the rail corridor from Union Pacific. Some of us, perhaps naively, are hoping and waiting for Union Pacific to tell the high-speed rail authority to go to hell and stay off the Caltrain corridor. 

Anyhow, none of any of this is more than talk, back-room plotting, scheming, and keeping the public from finding out anything until it's too late.  

We are still assuming that because the federal FRA has stated many times that the Central Valley and only the Central Valley will receive federal high-speed rail funding, that's the way it's going to be. But, it's an election year and the two sides are as far apart as they've ever been. 

That's why we have to pay attention constantly to these quickly shifting tides. "Beware the tiger on the path you least expect."

Caltrain plan would fast-track electric rail
Michael Cabanatuan
Monday, February 13, 2012

The overhaul of California's high-speed rail project could bring the Bay Area $1 billion to electrify Caltrain and lay the path for bullet train service between San Francisco and San Jose sooner than anticipated.

The Chronicle has learned that officials with Bay Area transportation agencies are in negotiations with each other, and with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to craft an agreement that would fund an advanced train-control system, electrify the rails on the Peninsula and eliminate some of the rail crossings - perhaps as soon as 2016, five to 10 years earlier than previous estimates.

"There's a lot of work that needs to happen, and a lot of moving parts, but this is the closest we've been to seeing some real tangible benefit to Caltrain from the high-speed rail project," said Seamus Murphy, a Caltrain spokesman.

Proposition 1A, the $9.95 billion bond measure approved in 2008 that funded the high-speed rail project, would pay for the Caltrain improvements. But the Bay Area would have to match that money with a significant amount of local funds, perhaps as much as $1 billion. According to the plan, $600 million would come from bond money for high-speed rail service with an additional $400 million coming from bond funds dedicated to transit agencies providing connections to high-speed trains.

But there are still obstacles. In addition to finding matching funds and proposing a package of improvements that would benefit Caltrain and high-speed rail, the Bay Area needs to convince the rail authority board to include the proposal in its business plan, which is expected to be passed in March, then hope the Legislature will release the bond money and include it in the state budget.

Dan Richard, a former BART director and new chairman of the rail authority board, confirmed discussions with Caltrain and Bay Area officials, and said it's an attempt to speed the plan to use commuter rail lines to help provide initial high-speed rail service.

"If we're going to come up the Peninsula on those lines, and use that right-of-way, then this would be advancing our investment in high-speed rail," said Richard, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of an effort to overhaul the authority.

As part of that shakeup, the authority released a new draft of its business plan that bluntly acknowledged it could take 13 years longer than expected to build a fast train line between San Francisco and Southern California, and said it could cost $98 billion, more than twice the original estimate.

The draft plan also laid out a new phased approach, with the first stretch - the so-called spine of the system, where trains would reach speeds of 220 mph - to be built starting this fall between Chowchilla and Bakersfield. The Central Valley segment would next be extended either to San Jose or the San Fernando Valley by 2021, and high-speed trains would start to run while the other end of the line is constructed by 2026.

Until the commuter lines could be electrified, and tracks improved to accommodate high-speed rail, passengers would have to transfer to diesel trains to get to downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But the authority is working in both the Bay Area and Southern California to accelerate improvements of the commuter railroads. Southern California officials have already agreed on a list of projects - most of them eliminating or improving rail crossings or adding additional tracks - and hope to get $1.3 billion from the high-speed rail bonds.

Under the plan being assembled, construction would still start in the Central Valley, but the upgrades to Caltrain and Southern California's Metrolink system would take place simultaneously.

Caltrain officials have longed to electrify their railroad for decades and have completed plans but lacked funding. Electrification would allow Caltrain to run lighter, faster and cleaner trains, which officials believe would boost ridership. Along with an advanced train-control system, which has been mandated by federal rail officials for commuter lines, it would also lay the infrastructure needed to carry high-speed trains up and down the Peninsula without significant construction.

Preliminary results of a Caltrain study show that an electrified railroad could accommodate two high-speed trains an hour - at 110 mph - without additional tracks.

Caltrain would probably use part of the money to eliminate some of the Peninsula's 43 at-grade rail crossings by taking intersecting streets over or under the tracks. But building fully separated tracks, as on the BART system, won't be required, and could take place over time.

Murphy said Caltrain will also need to replace some bridges, tracks and rail ties to handle electrified and high-speed trains, and some of those improvements could also be included in a list of projects proposed to be funded by bonds.

Missing from the proposal is an extension to the Transbay Terminal. It's still in the plans, said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's regional transportation planning agency, but with a $4.2 billion price tag, it would be too costly to fund along with electrification.

"We can include a lot of things, but it can't be everything," he said. "We're trying to find the things that have the most impact."

The commission and the Bay Area Council, a business group that helped rally transportation officials to push for the accelerated Caltrain funds, are working to get agencies to assemble their list of projects and forge a funding plan that will require compromises and shifting funding from other projects. It needs to be done within weeks.

"It's not a done deal for the Bay Area yet," said Rufus Jefris, a spokesman for the council. "We need to come together on this."

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

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