HSR foes question Caltrain need for HSR to electrify and survive
- Published Friday, April 23, 2010, by the San Mateo County Times
Some question if Caltrain's claims valid
By Mike Rosenberg
San Mateo County Times
Many people who live between San Francisco and San Jose are struggling to come to terms with -- and in some cases believe -- the likelihood that the much-maligned high-speed rail project appears to be the only thing capable of saving their beloved Caltrain service.
Caltrain, in issuing financial forecasts Thursday, concluded that without $516 million from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to electrify and run cheaper trains, its budget will continue to spiral downward until it is a shell of its former self or gone completely.
So, would even the harshest of Peninsula high-speed rail critics be willing to put their concerns aside for the good of Caltrain?
Not so fast, they respond. Some bullet-train detractors said Friday they think Caltrain may simply be trying to secure more money or to shift the public in favor of high-speed rail.
"I think it's disingenuous to say, 'If we don't have high-speed rail come up through here, we're not going to have Caltrain,' " said Menlo Park resident Russ Peterson, who has a pending lawsuit against the rail Authority. "That I find to be a little bit of fear-mongering, that you get both or none."
Caltrain insists it's a reality, and says it will soon have to cut "muscle and bone." Officials invited anyone to come up with an alternative way of cutting costs or raising new money.
"If somebody has a better way to run this railroad, they can be my guest," said CEO Mike Scanlon. "This is a pretty simple business model."
Some appear willing to stop both projects. The Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail <http://cc-hsr.org>, a Peninsula group of which Peterson is a member, and the Planning and Conservation League <http://www.pcl.org> warned Caltrain earlier this month not to approve the electrification project, citing high-speed rail concerns. Caltrain called the letter from Gary Patton, the groups' attorney, a "veiled threat of litigation," and its board delayed the $1.3 billion project's approval until May or June.
Others are looking for answers outside of high-speed rail.
"It's easy (for Caltrain) to say 'all or none' and have this white knight come in and save you," said Nadia Naik, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design <http://calhsr.com>, a Palo Alto-based group of bullet train critics. "We all need to come together as a community and figure out first and foremost what it will take to save our local commute service."
Still other high-speed rail critics, particularly city officials, have adopted the "do it right" mantra and say their first priority is to save and bolster Caltrain service.
And Caltrain's interests have been the only thing unifying both pro- and anti-high-speed rail groups, said Californians for High-Speed Rail <http://ca4hsr.org> Executive Director Brian Stanke.
"There is perhaps greater awareness now that despite different points of view or concerns about high-speed rail, people really need to work together so that Caltrain doesn't go into this catastrophic death spiral," Stanke said.
The electrification argument is simple: Electric trains are cheaper, faster and greener than diesel locomotives.
The finances are especially important now. San Francisco Muni, SamTrans and Santa Clara VTA, which provide 40 percent of Caltrain's funding, announced plans earlier this month to slash subsidies by up to 70 percent.
With diesel, Caltrain expects its operating deficit to plunge to $47 million next year and $61 million in 2019, or half the money it needs to operate the current railroad. With electrification, that 2019 deficit will be roughly chopped in half, to about one-fourth of its budget, and will continue to improve each year.
Here's why: Since electric trains can start and stop faster, Caltrain can run more of its popular commute-time service, get people to their destination quicker and stop at more stations. That way, it expects to eventually double its rider counts, causing revenues to jump nearly 50 percent by the end of this decade.
Electric trains are also cheaper, so even by expanding the schedule by about two dozen trains, Caltrain expects expenses to stay roughly flat. Most notably, it anticipates saving $10 million per year by buying electricity instead of diesel fuel.
Not everyone is skeptical of their claims.
Matthew Ridgway, the principle of the San Francisco office of Fehr & Peers, which provides transportation consulting to Caltrain, the high-speed rail authority and others, said he thinks Caltrain's internal projections are "absolutely correct." But he does not think electrification is a magic solution.
"Electrification will help them, but it doesn't necessarily solve their long-term issue with not having enough long-term revenue," he said. "They really need to solve their operating funding."
Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain on track to bankruptcy without electrification and HSR
Caltrain faces extinction without new funding source or HSR
Caltrain shutdown would have require 2.5 new lanes on 101 and 280
Letter: SJ BART official on VTA and Caltrain funding
Menlo Park NIMBY Morris Brown sues state, Caltrain to stop HSR
Caltrain says survival may depend on SF-SJ Pacheco Pass HSR route
Column: Saving Caltrain in best interests of all; Peninsula HSR
Caltrain riders hope devastating service cuts don't materialize
Caltrain riders try to avert huge service cuts as new blog launches
Column: Why Caltrain is an orphan & 5 myths about Caltrain
Comment: Will Schwarzenegger's war on transit destroy Caltrain?
Caltrain funding crises may force move to commute-only service
Caltrain electrification EIR OK delayed for NIMBYs. PCL attorney
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