Caltrain choices: electrification or insolvency

Caltrain, which runs from San Francisco down the peninsula past San Jose to Gilroy, transports thousands of riders each day, many of them commuters. They are facing a severe budget shortfall, and say they need to convert to a modern electric-powered system which would be faster, with more frequent service.

This, they hope, would attract new riders which would offset their budget crunch. Well, sort of. Even with electrification, the budget would still be in the red, just not as much. To further complicate things, they need to raise $1.5 billion to pay for the upgrades.

Ouch.

Some funding could come from the California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) Prop 1A that passed in 2008. But it only provides $9.95 billion for the initial segment from Los Angeles to San Francisco, about half of what is needed. The federal government did recently kick in $2.35 billion as part of the stimulus package. But CASHR still has nowhere near what it needs for the L.A-S.F. route.

So, it’s difficult to see where Caltrain will get the $1.5 billion necessary for electrification from that funding. There’s just not enough to go around.

The financial problems are getting worse. On April 30, the state auditor reported CAHSR may never be completed because of poor planning and a lack of funding. California was hoping for up to $19 billion from the federal government. That simply isn’t going to happen, and really, it was fantasy to think it ever would.

Prop 1A plans to raise the money by selling bonds which would presumably be paid off by revenues. Since these would be general obligation bonds, they would in effect be guaranteed by the state which can use tax revenues to repay the bond holders. Thus, if something goes wrong, taxpayers will make up the difference.

However, a recent peer-reviewed study in Britain’s Journal of Choice Modeling does say that the model for ridership developed by CAHSR is indeed accurate. If so, then the bonds might well pay for themselves.

Caltrain quite rightfully says if their rail service continues to be cut back, that freeways in the area will become ever more clogged with commuters during rush hour, that getting to sporting events will become much more complicated, and you can forget about taking the train from San Jose into S.F. at night for dinner, because there won’t be any night trains.

So, they want high speed electric rail on the Peninsula coming into San Francisco. Let’s be clear on this. High speed rail means just that. The trains can travel at 120-160 mph.  As you might guess, those living next to the proposed tracks are sometimes are less than excited about this.

At a recent Palo Alto meeting, reports Palo Alto Online, residents and critics of the plan met with CAHSR officials to determine what the final design might look like. The general tenor of the meeting was “If you can’t stop the high-speed-rail system, you might as well help design it.”

Primary among quite legitimate concerns were noise, safety, vibration, and who might lose their homes or businesses due to eminent domain, which is the seizing of land by the state for public use. If you want deep tunnels for high speed rail with Caltrain running on the surface, it takes 1,000 feet to depress the roads enough so trucks can pass under the tracks. This means any homes or businesses in that area will lose their driveway and thus will probably be seized by the state, one commenter to the article pointed out. Other comments wonder about earthquake safety, should there be raised trestles or 100 foot deep tunnels.

High speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles would be highly competitive with air travel, and would probably take less time, especially if you factor in time spent getting to and from the airports, especially LAX which seemingly is always choked with traffic and people.

But is it worth spending $20 billion on? Many other industrialized countries already have high speed rail and find it indispensable, so the answer is probably “yes,” assuming of course that it is profitable or at worse, runs at a small loss.

The 800 pound gorilla that none of the funding projections deal with is cost overruns. Have you ever heard of a major public project that was completed under or at the projected budget? Me neither. It’s not unusual for costs to balloon to double or triple the initial estimates, especially for projects like this that take years to complete.

California may not be able to afford high speed rail but it also probably can’t afford not to do it.