End of the line for the CalTrain SF extension?

Background on downtown project proposal as of May 1997

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CalTrain downtown SF extension | Electrification of CalTrain

The Joint Powers Board (JPB) responsible for CalTrain will decide soon whether to continue to work towards building a downtown San Francisco extension of CalTrain. There are strong indications that they will vote to kill the project. The likely justification by decision-makers is based on low predicted ridership gains from an extension and bleak prospects for covering construction costs from available funding sources. Peninsula Rail 2000 has found several flaws in the assumptions of these arguments (See PR2000's editorial about this.)

PR2000's letter on the extension states, "...This project [is] central to our only chance for a modern, efficient alternative to the congested highways of the Peninsula corridor for the next 30 years. ... We believe that true political support for CalTrain can become reality and would hold greater promise for regional mobility [than the proposed eight-mile BART extension to Millbrae]. We have also seen progress with plans to bring high speed rail to downtown San Francisco using the same extension. In view of these developments, killing this project could prove to be an untimely, monumental blunder."

In addition the letter challenged assumptions that have cast a dim light on the extension in the minds of decision makers. It suggested that ridership gains due to the extension may be much higher than the recent Market Demand Study has suggested. That study considered very limited train frequencies, parking and other modes of access to suburban stations. The letter also suggested that current funding problems result from weak polical support which may be only temporary.

After a five-month delay, the draft environmental documents for the extension were approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and released in March for public review. Andy Nash, project manager for the extension, explained that in order for the project to continue any further, the JPB must select a locally preferred alternative (LPA), and initiate the final environmental impact report/study (FEIR/S). One of the options under consideration for the LPA concerns the proposed renovation or relocation of regional bus facilities housed in the Transbay Terminal, the site of CalTrain's proposed new downtown station.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), responsible for the funding allocation for Bay Area transit projects, must also approve funding for the FEIR/S. Failure to do this would halt the project. The extension project newsletter, On The Right Track, describes short- and long-term funding scenarios, with construction beginning in 2000 and 2005, respectively. (Paper copies are available by calling 1-800-818-TRAK. Ask for On The Right Track, Issue 6, 3/97)

Items in addition to the actual downtown extension--equipping trains for dual mode operation, new rolling stock, system upgrades, and additional parking at Peninsula stations--are included with official project costs, resulting in a total of $656.2 million (1995 dollars). PR2000 director Jim Wheeler estimates the true cost of the extension to be only $308 million in 1997 dollars when costs outside of the actual extension are omitted.

Under both the short- or long-term scenarios, some portion of the funds needed for the project plus these related costs would come from sources that do not yet exist, such as a regional gas tax. For this reason, the current proposal also includes a "staged project scenario" under which the needed rights of way and space at the Transbay Terminal site would be set aside for eventual use when funding for construction becomes available.

Under this scenario, an underground shell to house the proposed six-track CalTrain and high speed rail terminal would be built in conjunction with demolition of the Transbay Terminal. Nash also alluded to property needed for the extension along Townsend Street between Third and Fourth Streets (currently the SF RV park). Catellus, owner of this and former railroad yard properties, plans in the next three years to construct medium-rise housing on this block as part of the proposed Mission Bay development.

PR2000 and other supporters of an upgraded CalTrain are asking that the JPB give electrification first priority (conversion from diesel to electrically powered locomotives) if the extension cannot be built in the near term. With electrification completed first, dual mode operation would be unnecessary and costs for conversion to new propulsion could be considered separate from the extension project. This would cut the cost of an extension built at a later date by 20 to 30%.

Many CalTrain supporters have felt that CalTrain needs to get rid of the noisy, polluting diesel locomotives before people in downtown San Francisco will picture the train as clean and modern, to make CalTrain into the downtown an attractive concept. Supporters of electrification are hopeful that matching state and federal funds generated by Santa Clara County's Measure A/B program will make the approximately $200 million electrification for the 77-mile CalTrain system possible.

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Last updated: July 1, 1997

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