New high-speed rail plan offers great benefits to Bay Area

Jeff Hobson head shot

TransForm encourages the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area agencies, and the High Speed Rail Authority to move forward with the Bay Area strategy that will offer great benefits to the region.

The California High Speed Rail Authority will soon release a new Business Plan to completely revamp this massive infrastructure project. TransForm has been participating in extensive conversations leading up to this new plan, and there are still some issues that need resolution, on the overall statewide approach and some specific geographic areas. TransForm will update our position on the entire Business Plan after it is released.

The new high speed rail plan’s Bay Area strategy offers great benefits to our region and deserves our strong support. On March 28, MTC will vote on a Memorandum of Understanding with the High Speed Rail Authority (“the Authority”), local cities and transit agencies (see MTC agenda, item 7.c.). The MOU is based on the new business plan’s “blended approach” strategy and only deals with projects in the Bay Area. The MOU includes a policy commitment and detailed funding proposal for $1.5 billion worth of projects, TransForm wanted to state a position now, in support of this MOU and the strategy within it.

Since 2000, TransForm has supported all of the major elements of this MOU; Electrification of the Caltrain Corridor, Advanced Signal Systems, and a connection to the Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco Together, the elements would provide cleaner, quieter, faster trains between San Francisco and Silicon Valley while also preparing the region for high-speed rail.

High Speed Rail’s New Business Plan

Led by their new Chair, Dan Richard, the Authority is developing a clear-eyed strategy to phase the development of high speed rail in California. The new Business Plan will ditch the $10+ billion, 220 MPH “test track” to nowhere. Instead it will focus on upgrading existing train systems to ensure there are major near-term benefits, even if future phases and the 220 MPH “bullet train” fail to materialize.

Specifically, the new plan combines the existing commitment to proceed with construction of the first rail segment in the Central Valley with a “bookend” strategy that simultaneously makes improvements in California’s most populous regions and economically vibrant regions, the Bay Area and Southern California.

All of these investments would be designed to allow trains using existing technology to use the tracks while also allowing future high speed trains to use the same tracks. This “blended approach” makes tremendous sense from a transportation perspective. It will bring benefits to millions of existing commuters within just a few years and eliminate the risk of having a massive “stranded asset” – in this case a useless, multi-billion dollar track with no funding source to complete the sections to Los Angeles or San Francisco  – stuck in the middle of the state.

By crafting a plan that will make near-term improvements to a (primarily) two-track system in the Bay Area and Southern California, the new Business Plan should gain the project much needed political support in the urban areas.

Additional Bay Area Considerations:

In the Bay Area, the most controversial part of the original Bay Area proposal was to turn the Caltrain corridor into a 4 track-system, significantly impacting the character of many of the downtowns along the line. This controversy has threatened to derail the entire project.

The new Business Plan provides an elegant solution. The project investments specified in the MOU will be “limited to infrastructure necessary to support a blended system, which will primarily be a two-track system shared by both Caltrain and high-speed rail.” Using two tracks for almost all the Caltrain corridor should avoid much of the opposition that faced the 4-track approach. Occasional passing tracks will allow high-speed trains to share tracks with Caltrain’s Baby Bullet and Local services. It is important that the environmental review cover only this primarily two-track system, to obviate concern that this MOU may be a cover for the Authority’s original proposal.

TransForm is grateful to all the leaders, such as Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian, and Assemblymember Rich Gordon, who pushed on the Authority to develop a plan that is financially responsible and that will reduce community impact. We are thrilled that MTC and the other entities signing the MOU were able to work through the specific issues quickly.

The MOU lays out a funding plan that will electrify the Caltrain corridor and install Advanced Signal Systems. Both of these improvements will not only prepare the region for high speed rail, but will also reduce Caltrain’s operating costs and improve performance. The MOU also includes a commitment to build the connection to the Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco. The downtown connection would dramatically improve Caltrain’s usefulness and, combined with electrification it would provide cleaner, quieter, faster trains between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

MTC and the other agencies should pass this resolution and support the MOU now. The Authority is is in a race to get the project off the ground to meet impending deadlines; including legislative approval this spring and deadlines to spend the federal stimulus dollars.  Several transit agencies in Southern California are now supporting a blended approach for that region, including on MetroLink’s corridor connecting Palmdale to LA’s Union Station. 

It is also important to note that the MOU specifies that all the Bay Area projects will go through project-level environmental reviews (CEQA and NEPA) regulations. The Authority will not seek exemptions from environmental review at the project level. These reviews will allow additional community concerns and environmental impacts to be addressed.

Next Steps

California is going to grow. By 2050, we may have 60 million neighbors. We need to decide how we want to accommodate the growing travel demand. If we don't provide access through effective transit, that demand will lead to wider highways and more airports.

The incremental approach of the new Business Plan makes sense. There are still statewide and geographic-specific issues TransForm is discussing with the Authority. These include the financing plan, mitigations for low-income communities in the Central Valley, strategies to improve land uses and connectivity (especially in the Central Valley), and loss of habitat. We will have a statement on the overall Business Plan soon after it is released.

Right now, the Authority, MTC, and other Bay Area agencies should move the Bay Area MOU forward.


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