Caltrain delays electrification OK due to veiled lawsuit threat
- Published Friday, April 2, 2010, by the San Mateo County Times
Looming lawsuit delays approval of plan to electrify Caltrain
By Mike Rosenberg
San Mateo County Times
On a day in which officials painted a gloomy, perhaps unsustainable future for Caltrain, officials at the railroad could not even approve what had appeared to be a slam-dunk proposal for its one glimmering hope: electric trains.
Facing a potential lawsuit, the Caltrain Board of Directors on Thursday delayed the approval of the $1.23 billion project to electrify the 51-mile railroad from San Francisco to San Jose. Just days ago, they had expected to pass the measure easily after receiving federal approval.
But Caltrain legal counsel David Miller said Wednesday the agency received a veiled threat of a lawsuit in the form of a letter from an attorney representing the Planning and Conservation League <http://www.pcl.org>, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that also helped sue the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 2008.
The conservation league letter and some Atherton residents who spoke at the meeting argued Caltrain needed to redo its environmental planning since it finished the work in 2004, only to fall short of funding for construction. But federal transit and Caltrain officials argued electrification would actually have a positive environmental impact and that the project has only gotten smaller in the past six years.
Caltrain board members agreed to postpone the project's approval until their attorneys could assess the litigation threat. Board member Omar Ahmad, the San Carlos vice mayor, said a lawsuit appeared almost certain.
The electrification project approval will allow officials to gather the remaining $516 million they need to complete construction. Specifically, the high-speed rail authority agreed to give money since it needs the tracks from San Francisco to San Jose to be electric before it can run bullet trains there.
Caltrain still hopes to have its electric railroad running by 2015, with construction lasting three years. But officials, facing unprecedented financial challenges that could require them to erase half their schedule, are also wondering whether they can make it that far.
Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said despite the present challenges, it would be foolish to abandon the agency's long-term plans. Plus, with electrification, not only will Caltrain offer faster and greener trains, it can beef up economically efficient commute-time service and run trains at a lower cost.
"The problem is getting to the future," Simon said.
Although Caltrain has $709 million from federal, state and local sources for electrification and expects the rest to come in time, it cannot use the money to balance its budget. The funds were earmarked for job-creating infrastructure projects and cannot be spent on ongoing operations.
Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain goes broke; will likely cut weekend, night, midday trains
Caltrain set to certify EIR for $1.2b electrification plan today
Caltrain set to approve $1.23b SF-SJ electrification plan
Caltrain JPB set to certify electrification FEIR (25 Mar 10)
Final EIR for Caltrain electrification receives clearance (25 Mar 10)