Caltrain electrification EIR OK delayed for NIMBYs. PCL attorney
- Published Friday, April 2, 2010, by Examiner.com
Future of Caltrain in Question and Electrification Environmental Report Approval Delayed
By Kathy Hamilton
SF Transportation Policy Examiner
Caltrain and Samtrans CEO, Mike Scanlon, surprised the audience with the news that the Joint Powers Board may have to trim $30 million off their $97 million dollar budget for the Caltrain service because of reduced sales taxes, reduced state monies and lower ridership. Scanlon added this was not an "April Fool's joke" and announced that he will recommend to the Samtrans board they cut their contribution to Caltrain by 70% for the coming year.
If this happens, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the San Francisco Transportation Agency would also follow suit due to the terms of joint powers agreement. Scanlon said all three agencies, "individually and collectively are beyond broke." This would result in approximately the $40 million contributions being reduced to $12 million. "When you take that amount of money out of the revenue side, you're not going to be able to sustain what we have," said Scanlon.
By January of this year we could be looking at a railroad half the size it is today. At the very least, mid-day, weekend service and late evening service could go by the wayside. All of which means a longer term solution will need to be found quickly for permanent funding to secure the railroad's future. Scanlon promised more specifics in the near future.
With this backdrop Scanlon stated that it was with irony that he introduced Bob Doty who is going to create the vision of one of the finest railroads in this country. Doty announced that he will give the presentation for the Alternatives Analysis for the Bay area at the April 8th HSR Board meeting in San Jose. At the request of Bob Doty, the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) agreed that there will be no formal comment period after the release of the Alternatives Analysis.
Next the discussion of the finalization of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Electrification began. Marian Lee from Caltrain explained that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cleared the Caltrain environmental document in 2009 with a finding of no significant impact; and in fact considered it environmentally beneficial to our society. In addition to it being environmentally "the right thing to do", electrification is seen to help Caltrain become more financially sustainable by improving system performance, attracting more riders, increasing fare revenue while also removing autos from the road, reducing pollution and fuel operating costs". Certifying the EIR could allow the project to attract more funding to close a gap of about $600 million, and move to final design.
More than 10 speakers came before the Joint Powers Board and asked them to delay the decision to certify their EIR. There were at least two people that wanted the board to certify the EIR as presented. The major concerns about certification were over the out-datedness of the 45 day public comment period held in 2004 and High Speed Rail's plans requiring changes to newly installed Caltrain electrification. Other residents were very concerned about the probable destruction of trees along the Caltrain corridor.
Gary Patton, environmental attorney for Wittwer & Parkin, LLP, Planning and Conservation League (PCL) and the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail (CC-HSR) <http://cc-hsr.org> sent a letter on March 31st stating these organizations object to the proposed adoption. Patton said "...taking the action recommended to you by staff would violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). We urge the Board to comply with CEQA and to revise and re-circulate the EA/EIR for additional agency and public comment, before making a project decision."
At the meeting Patton reiterated his legal position but wanted to speak to the board as a former elected official and warned them if board used a six year old EIR "what you're really telling people is you don't want to include them, you're not trying to help them build this new vision of a better rail system for the peninsula." He urged the JPB Board to "take the time to revise and re-circulate this document, get the public buy-in for this kind of project that can take us to the end of this century here on the peninsula."
Pat Burt, Mayor of Palo Alto, expressed his city's support for regional transportation and cited Palo Alto as the second largest boarding city for the entire Caltrain system. "We have decades of transit-oriented development and a great history of a community that will tax itself to provide valuable public transportation." This was no doubt in response to Mike Scanlon's comments about the financial health and dwindling funds for Caltrain's operation. Burt also reminded the board that there was no peninsula representation in Santa Clara County, north of San Jose. He asked the JPB to consider geographic representation on the board or at least a second tier of "feed-in" to the board, a policy advisory committee, where each city had representation much like VTA's governance structure.
Burt also asked the JPB to take advantage of the focus on rail transportation as High Speed Rail is being considered for the Caltrain corridor. He described the time as an opportunity and a risk for the agency. It's a risk if "that system [HSR] should be put-in in such a way that it undermines the support of our constituent cities and your stakeholders. And it's an opportunity if we can figure out a way to leverage all of the engagement into support for a system we truly believe in." He advised the JPB to come up with a plan B since what HSRA has been presenting is not necessarily where this is all going to play out. Burt addressed Caltrain's current difficult situation by saying that "engaging the cities and the stakeholders and taking this opportunity to build a greater political support, translatable into long term permanent financial support for the success of this organization, is going to be possible."
Elizabeth Alexis spoke on behalf of the Green Meadow Community Association; a neighborhood of Eichlers that was put on the national registration in 2005 for its unique California Modern architecture just one year after the 2004 draft Electrification EIR was completed. Alexis was there to object to the proposed electrical substation that was now planned to be located in the Caltrain right-of-way opposite the entrance to their subdivision and the Thomas Church designed park. This was the same space the neighborhood thought would provide right-of-way for High Speed Rail -- and now they are confused. Despite dialogue with Caltrain, she said her association had problems with a document which says "final" yet it does not acknowledge or report any of the community concerns. She hoped the "people who made promises are still around when the building happens." Alexis' final issue was one of process. The community was not notified of the significant changes [represented by the substation] which she just became aware of. She also asked the JPB to double check their outreach to make sure that other neighborhoods like hers had not been overlooked.
Jack Ringham, a resident of Atherton, said he did not question the merits of electrification. He said, "I ask why rush the EIR with no current public comment, electrify Caltrain's 2 tracks by 2015 and not coordinate with the 4 track HRS system and probably tear down most of the 2 track electrification to build the 4 track HSR by 2020.
Similar concerns were voiced by Menlo Park resident, Morris Brown. He noted that in Caltrain's EIR it stated that more than ¾ of the electrification expenses would be recovered if it has to be redone for HSR. Brown disagreed with the percentages and added"that's at least ¼ of the funds that would be wasted -- and you're looking at $200 million dollars. "If you're trying to get the public to go along and think you are fiscally responsible, you are sadly mistaken". He noted that "this is a regional electrification project [and] certainly this project does not qualify for any ARRA funding which is High Speed Rail funding.  I think you need to step back and re-circulate this thing at the very least. I am not against electrification but I am certainly against the process we're looking at here."
Paul Jones, engineer with extensive railroad experience, said the town of Atherton has stated repeatedly that significant environmental impact will be experienced if trees are removed or damaged. Jones explains that many trees were "planted and nourished to act as a screen to the adjacent residences from the visual and noise impact of Caltrain. Trees will have to be removed or so severely pruned they will die." Rosemary Maulbetsch was also concerned about the old data in the report, added that an arborist must get current information to know the health of the trees. "Get a second or third opinion, like a human." She also stressed that when the work is actually done, it must be overseen. She recalled a time when they went out to ask people "pruning the trees," to stop chopping on one side of the trees. The workers told them that they were there to get the branches back from the tracks", not to "pretty the trees."
Pat Gorni from Burlingame reminded the board that "this document" [the EIR] was just one more piece of paper coming on top of the HSR Draft Program EIR which is now in public comment period; and next week the HSR Alternative Analysis will be rolled out. "All this stuff is being thrown to the public, all at the same time." I would respectfully request that you forgo approving this today and take another look at it."
Nadia Naik from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) <http://calhsr.com> also encouraged the board not to approve the EIR at this time and added as Ms. Gorni did, that the confusion of having all three documents circulating the same time might "risk the great reputation that Caltrain has in the community" and run the risk of being confused with what has happened with High Speed Rail. She advised "slow down just enough to circulate the document to get "some good public comment, show the communities that you care and we'll have this project work out."
David Miller, the counsel for JPB summarized. He said "this day was intended to be a landmark day 10 years in the making to place the JPB in a position that it would be more eligible for funding and regulatory approvals to move forward." He believed that the staff recommendation to approve the EIR was a sound one. Miller offered that the FTA approved the project after reviewing the lengthy history. They found that the changes in the project scope were minor and that the revised project would result in lesser environmental impacts and they did not require a supplemental environmental assessment. Far from being a project that creates environmental problems, instead electrification "offers environmental advantages". Additionally any negative environmental effects would be able to be mitigated.
Notwithstanding, both David Miller and CEO Michael Scanlon recommended that the action on the environmental document be postponed because the people asked for it and they wanted time to review late arriving letters.
No date was set for reconsideration of the EIR.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain crisis has officials eying new sources for operating cash
Caltrain delays electrification OK due to veiled lawsuit threat
Caltrain goes broke; will likely cut weekend, night, midday trains