Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Measure B puts Caltrain electrification at risk

Caltrain, one of the most neglected and underfunded transit modes in the South Bay, is also one of the most successful. This year, Caltrain's weekday ridership has exceed 40,000. Even so, Caltrain is also facing difficult operational challenges with ever rising diesel prices and an aging fleet. To keep operating costs under control and allow the trains to run faster and more frequently, Caltrain has been planning to electrify the rail line for more than eight years. However, despite promises made in the 2000 Measure A, VTA has been and continues to put Caltrain electrification at risk.

Currently, the cost of electrification (between San Francisco and San Jose) and new rolling stock is estimated at $1.5 billion (year of expenditure), or about $30 million per mile, which is less than the cost to build a light rail. Along with state and federal funds, which Caltrain is trying to obtain, the rest of the cost will be shared by the three counties that Caltrain serves (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara).

Eight years ago, VTA and SVLG included funding for electrification and other Caltrain improvements in the 2000 Measure A. Because of Caltrain, that tax received endorsements from north and south county cities that otherwise wouldn't receive light rail or BART.

Since the passage of the 2000 Measure A, Caltrain outlived its usefulness as an endorsement asset and slowly became a liability for VTA. Simply, a successful Caltrain undercuts reasons to build BART. For less cost, Caltrain can take passengers to San Francisco faster. Unlike the BART extension, there's no complicated scheme to fund Caltrain operations that puts bus and light rail service in jeopardy. However, what Caltrain won't do is to appease the Downtown Delusionals.

Ever since, VTA and SVLG have done the most to drag their feet on Caltrain electrification. At the beginning, VTA proclaimed to have the money but refused to spend it because VTA said that other counties have yet to pay their share. In 2005, SVLG recommended a 10% funding reduction for Caltrain so that VTA could fund BART with a 1/4 cent tax increase. Last month, VTA decided to underfund the Caltrain's capital program [page 66], which would fund engineering work for electrification, by a measly $700,000 (out of a total VTA budget of almost $750 million this year) because VTA wants to wait until after the election.

By now, San Francisco (2003 Prop K) and San Mateo County (2004 Measure A) have funding available for Caltrain electrification, which were both passed by over 71% without any BART extensions. They're all looking at VTA to see whether it is still dragging its feet.

Today, even though VTA and SVLG have included the word "Caltrain" in the Measure B ballot language and on other Measure B propaganda in an attempt to get votes, make no mistake about it: Measure B would not provide any funds for Caltrain and would actually give VTA an excuse to negate earlier promises on Caltrain, particularly electrification. If Measure B passes, VTA could cut Caltrain funding just by interpreting the Measure B outcome as a vote against Caltrain. Is it possible that more voters support Caltrain than BART? No one knows because it is not what Measure B is really asking and it is not the question that SVLG and VTA want to have an answer for.

Also, given an MTC committee's vote to divert bridge toll funds from Dumbarton Rail to BART Warm Springs extension, VTA and SVLG have no problems with cutting one project to fund another. As we all know, Measure B would not be enough even for BART operation, maintenance, and required contributions.

There's nothing more threatening to Caltrain than Measure B. The choice is more clear than ever.

1 comment:

arcady said...

I think Caltrain should just build electrification to the county line, and leave the VTA looking stupid. I've read the plans, and the boundary between the Bayshore and San Jose substation sections is planned to be in Redwood City. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to extend it to Menlo Park, and through the crossovers up to, but not including, the bridge to Palo Alto. And put up big signs at Palo Alto and Mountain View explaining that Caltrain electrification was paid for by SF and San Mateo, and will come to Santa Clara County just as soon at the VTA pays up. Make the VTA look stupid, but don't let the VTA delay electrification, because the current non-electrified service looks, to use a colloquialism, rather "ghetto" compared to BART.