Just before Christmas, an important meeting occurred, the Policy Workers group which began the conversation with the peninsula cities, Caltrain and High-Speed Rail (HSR) about the modernization of Caltrain and beyond. There were many peninsula cities were represented with a major turnout by the public, some 50 people, most unusual for a meeting like this especially just days before Christmas. It was primarily a series of presentations by Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority.
Everyone wants to know exactly how an improved and modernized Caltrain will be realized but the question is at what cost and we’re not talking about just money. The HSR Authority has agreed to give Caltrain $705 million which will help Caltrain realize its dream of electrification but some worry what will happen after the electrification project. Will the HSR Authority be in control?
Local opinion is that if the Caltrain’s Joint Powers Board (JPB) the owner of the ROW between San Francisco and San Jose is in charge, they would more respectful of the needs of the residents and local cities rather than HSR management which has failed in the past.
Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail weighed in on the Caltrain Modernization plan and urged the public to participate in the meeting:
- Splitting the EIR into two parts – one part for Caltrain’s plans and the other part for HSR plans – is under consideration. This is a bad plan because it would mean the public could not comment on plans for HSR in Caltrain’s EIR, even though Caltrain is clearly laying groundwork for HSR. Please tell the board that a full environmental review must be undertaken and must consider all the possible impacts of future high-speed train use.
- In addition, local residents should speak out for a revised Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority, to make clear that the Authority will have to operate any future high-speed trains: (1) without any expansion of the existing Caltrain right of way, and (2) without any aerial structures, unless such a structure is specifically requested by an affected local government. These limitations are NOT included in the current agreements. In addition, we need to ensure (3) that the environmental review process for the Caltrain modernization project will not allow for any changes to these limits without a completely new environmental and project review.
Note: There were many MOUs, a recent one with Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in 2012 but the 2009 and earlier versions is the one in question since it points to a 4 track system for the peninsula.
In the Caltrain Meeting held on Dec 20th, the discussion of piece-mealing was discussed.- very simply this means that project can be done in a series partial projects that when strung together make up a much larger project with an undisclosed much larger impact of the project in its totality.
At the Caltrain meeting the authorities said doing electrification first is no problem under Californian Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it will meet two criteria, either of which would be legally sufficient: (1) It has independent utility, and (2) it will be complete with a northern terminal (4th and King) and a southern terminal (Diridon station).
Gary Patton, environmental attorney has another opinion, “Those comments reflect a near-total misunderstanding of CEQA. Not having an EIR that contemplates the entire project, including future HSR components, would violate CEQA, in my opinion.”
High-Speed Rail Board Meeting: MOU discussion
At the December 6th High-speed rail meeting board meeting in Sacramento, there was a discussion about updating the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and there were a couple of references to the bookend projects. Those are local commuter projects at the ends of the High-Speed Rail route that will enhance local transportation while being “on the way to high-speed rail.” Apparently there are conditions that would bind the Caltrain organization to certain requirements not currently in force and could well be conditions as to the release of the $705 million dollars. There was an interesting conversation about the strength of the verbiage in the proposed agreement which was not yet agreed upon.
However this is not without controversy. The question is can HSR funds be used for commuter rail since the Proposition said clearly it was to be used for high-speed only. Caltrain would be entitled to around $40 million. The very fact that there is a bucket of dollars for connectivity funds ($950 million) for commuter trains established in Prop 1A demonstrates the separateness intended by the bond initiative.
http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/displaycontent.aspx?id=13529 See the 38:14 to 53 mm section.
Background on the Phases:
Phase 1 is electrifying the line and installing positive train control system on the existing line except for minor track straightening tweaks needed. Postive Train Control will be done first since it is required to be completed by the Federal Railroad Commission (FRA) by 2015. It is designed to increase safety especially with various train systems running simultaneously. The electrification part of the project will not be completed at the earliest 2019.
Phase 2 remains unfunded by the state legislature and is when the expansion of tracks will be considered, whether it be for limited passing tracks or if the Authority finds the money a fully grade separated four track system as IA outlines. Also whether you need any expansion tracks or not is a question largely about ridership. Both the independent peer review group and the ridership peer review panel advised that the Authority must have new numbers by the January 2014 business plan. Some of numbers used in the Program Level Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) were established in the year 2000 and a bit latter.
If phase 2 has expanded tracks it will devastate homes and businesses along the corridor. Expansion of even one track in the city of Belmont could wipe out more than 30% of their corporate tax revenue and that could in fact endanger the existence of Belmont. This was stated in the December Peninsula Cities Coaltiion (PCC ) meeting. So the very idea of passing tracks or expansion of tracks should not be taken lightly and should be only considered with new ridership numbers not numbers devised from reports in the year 2000. With no track expansion, HSR could use existing tracks with 2-3 trains per hour during commuting hours. This was shown using Caltrain simultation studies.
In addition, the impacts that Union Pacific Railroad demands could have on the project has been underestimated and under reported. It is possible based on the Union Pacific MOU, they could well demand a separate track for their freight operations on a permanent basis due to safety reasons. It is not yet determined. They are requiring a separate track for HSR operations for Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley but those tracks are unelectrified and there are no plans to make them so. It is true UP allows baby bullet operations but HSR is a new inter-city service and could operate at higher speeds. In addition where the passing tracks will be located could influence their demands. http://rootshed.com/article/high-speed-rail-must-reach-final-agreements-with-uprr-and-bnsf
In addition, there well may be a track required during construction, called a shoofly track. This would be to keep the trains running for Caltrain and Union Pacific during construction and could take properties. The same scenario is in the South, the Metrolink is independently owned with only vestige rights for Union Pacific Railroad (UP) but with strong powers when it comes to the development of new inter-city passsenger services. The question is if UP demands that tracks may not be shared what happens to the concept of a blended system?
Some say there were protections built into the funding bill but what was included was limited at best. But there is a “gotcha” phrase in SB 1029 which states the project must be compliant with the law, which seems like a no brainer but make no mistake that phrase is there for a reason. Also there was letter written after the passage of the bill by Jeff Morales now CEO of the HSRA, ex- Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was supposed to give comfort to the peninsula. But it actuality it provides little comfort.
Here are some quotes:
“The blended approach implemented through SB 1029 funding will be primarily a two-track system, with limited passing tracks; will be designed and built primarily at or below grade; will be substantially within Caltrain’s existing right of way.”
Note: There is absolutely no definition of the term “blended”. As the city of Belmont has reminded members of the PCC several times, that a two-track system used with the words, “substantially or primarily” is not two tracks. That applies to the track design as well, primarily at grade or below grade does not exclude rails on elevated tracks.
In finalizing environmental and preliminary design work, the Authority will also be guided by the necessity to meet the performance requirements in Streets and Highways Code 2704.09 (provisions of Proposition 1A), the necessity for environmental mitigation, and the need to address any design constraints caused by existing infrastructure”.
Note: That’s the gotcha phrase- it’s gotta be lawful.
This letter was requested by Senator Joe Simitian but it has no absolutes in it. None of what is known as the Simitian, Eshoo Gordon plan (SEG) is nailed down in the law that funded the first part of the project. http://rootshed.com/article/california-high-speed-rail-peninsula-legislators-take-action
Also after the vote for funding passed, Senator Simitian stated in a private interview that he would have liked to get a rock solid guaranty for the peninsula but the votes weren’t there. The Governor’s office and High-Speed Rail management refused to allow tougher language in the bill saying it would be “unduly limiting in terms of flexibility.” http://rootshed.com/article/peninsula-cities-need-more-protection-against-the-rail-project
“The legislative counsel’s report which came out weeks prior to the funding vote and alludes to questions the legality of the blended system and suggested the Authority keep the fully grade separated four track system in the picture in order to be legal.”
http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Leg-Counsel-Opinion-on-April-2012-CHSRA-Business-Plan.pdf This is not the long awaited Attorney General’s ruling that has yet to appear after nearly two years. . In general the Legislative Counsel report creates more questions than it answers.
So the full 4 track system does in fact hang over the heads of businesses and homeowners like a sword per which now termed out Senator Joe Simitian warned against. And make no mistake, if the dollars are found for a 4 track system, out will come the famed and missing Attorney General ruling (requested prior to April 2011) and it just may say that the blended approach is not legal. The pieces of the puzzle then come together for the full four track system. It’s that simple.
Lawsuits and defending what the people voted for:
No one is enforcing the civil laws passed by the legislature. The High-Speed Rail Authority is selectively interested in enforcing laws only when it is to their advantage. The Legislature makes the laws but does not enforce them.
Insuring that the project is studied completely and is done in accordance of the law is the right thing to do for all the people that voted for the HSR project as well as those who didn’t. There should be no issue with a lawsuit that is not environmentally based and simply challenges the legality of spending IA money when some of the basic requirements of the law are not being enforced. Public Initatives in California are not to be tampered with unless there is a special note in the initiative that allows for legislature changes, there was none in IA.
So there is no confusion the AG’s office is busy defending the rail authority not monitoring the law for the people. One resident has a letter by the AG’s office advising them to hire a private attorney if they felt that a law has been violated since they represent the state. Most people think the Attorney General’s office is there for them but that’s not necessarily true.
The suit challenging the legality of the implementation of IA will be heard sometime in the Spring/Summer of 2013. The premise is simply, you can’t spend 1A funds for a project that doesn’t build high-speed rail and is not accordance with the law.
While this lawsuit is aimed at the Central Valley, a win could have repercussions for Caltrain using high-speed rail money and would certainly provide a strong basis for a new suit to prevent those funds from being used. While modernization is key on the peninsula the phrase, “Does the end justify the means,” could be tested in court. See the highly detailed analysis of the “Farmers suit” from Mark Powell in Southern California. Brady Central Valley Non-CEQA suit