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No on “filibuster” over Caltrain electrification

written by andy on

Earlier this month, the Caltrain board certified the final environmental impact report for the electrification project. With this action, Caltrain is one step closer to begin construction and concludes the environmental clearance process that began in 2001.

I believe that Caltrain should’ve been electrified when it was first proposed about 30 years ago. At that time, the project faced funding challenge, as well as question about Caltrain’s future in light of the plan to extend BART to SFO/Millbrae. Today, with record Caltrain ridership, increasing traffic congestion, and growing demand for mixed-use developments along the rail corridor, it is more urgent than ever for Caltrain to electrify.

On the other hand, this project faces some oppositions. Their opposition is not against Caltrain per se, but against high speed rail, which is planned to use the Caltrain corridor to access San Francisco from Southern California. Their main argument is that there’s no such thing as Caltrain electrification, only high speed rail, and until that is fully studied, nothing else should proceed.

Their demand to bundle Caltrain electrification with high speed rail is an attempt to sabotage high speed rail by making them look too big to succeed. These days, political realities force most transportation projects to be planned, funded, and constructed in phases or as smaller independent projects over a period of time (includes Caltrain projects like Baby Bullet and grade separations). Completing projects in smaller scale makes sense because it provides benefits to the public sooner rather than later, and allows the public and policy makers more opportunities to make changes along the way without having to hold up other projects.

With the certification of the electrification EIR, project opponents are evaluating whether to file a lawsuit (or more like “filibuster”) over the adequacy of the document. I believe the report is beyond thorough in regards to disclosing the impacts and does not have much grounds for a lawsuit.

Contention 1: Caltrain takes money from high speed rail for the electrification, so they’re one project.

The issue regarding the color of money is a political topic rather than an environmental topic meant to be addressed in the EIR. The Governor, state legislature, and the High Speed Rail Authority in 2012 approved the plan of using Prop 1A funding for Caltrain electrification as a way to provide early benefits, since completion of high speed rail is at a minimum more than a decade away. While Caltrain is not high speed rail, the proposed electrification infrastructure will be compatible with high speed rail. If they don’t think that Caltrain itself is politically important enough, they would’ve told Caltrain that electrification won’t happen until they’re ready to build high speed rail on the Peninsula.

Contention 2: The law (CEQA) doesn’t allow electrification and high speed rail to be separate.

While the law does not permit a larger permit to be artificially broken into smaller pieces to either evade environmental evaluation or somehow make the impacts look less serious, it is not a free ticket for project opponents to bundle whatever projects they see nearby and make them look too big to succeed. Over the decades after CEQA was approved, the courts have made some standards to determine what is actually legal or not.

One of the measure is whether Caltrain electrification has independent utility and physically can be built without high speed rail. The answer is clearly yes. Caltrain electrification has been considered since the 1980s as a way to speed up service and to access the Transbay Terminal (now under construction). It has received voter approval in various ballot measures in all three Caltrain counties prior to the approval of Prop 1A in 2008. It is obviously not a project proposed by high speed rail and got it imposed on Caltrain. The proposed electrification infrastructure is also the standard for mainline railroad electrification around the world, high speed or not (much like the standard track gauge).

More importantly, before high speed rail is to be operated on the Peninsula, another environmental study will have be conducted. Impacts caused by improvements specifically planned for high speed rail will have to be disclosed. With only conceptual-level planning available for high speed rail, Caltrain’s EIR already acknowledges high speed rail and includes the project in the cumulative impact analysis.

As someone who wants to see Caltrain electrification and high speed rail to happen, I was disheartened back in 2009 when High Speed Rail Authority came in to the communities and essentially tried to impose their requirements on the communities without actually consulting them. Their attitude resulted in loss of confidence and trust needed for successful implementation. However over the following years, leadership at the HSRA has changed. The adoption of the early investment plan and blended system by HSRA is an important recognition that Caltrain and our communities matter. If there’s a chance where agencies and communities can work together, continued confrontation through litigation is unlikely to yield the most desirable outcome.

While there’s a lot more work to do on electrification, high speed rail, and restoring trust for HSRA, we cannot afford a “filibuster” when Caltrain electrification is at stake.