San Jose Mercury-News endorses JPB procrastination

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CalTrain downtown SF extension | Electrification of CalTrain

The statement in this editorial:

Whether to electrify is not the question facing Caltrain. It already plans to switch from diesel to electric-powered trains, when it can secure funding.
is unsupported. The JPB has not adopted such a policy. The 1997 Caltrain Strategic Plan called for "possible electrification" in the next 15 years.

Published Monday, March 15, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Caltrain must keep its plans on track

IMAGINE -- a modern electric train that runs from San Jose to San Francisco in an hour.

Caltrain, the Peninsula's rail line, is chugging slowly toward that vision. To realize it, it's got to fix aging tracks, rebuild bridges and tunnels, add turn-back space and complete other long-deferred repairs. Then it can electrify its line.

Oh, did we mention that it needs money to do all that?

Despite having modest but clear and sensible goals, Caltrain now is busy fending off demands such as "Electrify now!" or "Extend to downtown San Francisco now!" Critics ignore the commuter rail line's careful planning and financial constraints. In fact, they fortify a greater threat to Caltrain -- political fickleness.

Whether to electrify is not the question facing Caltrain. It already plans to switch from diesel to electric-powered trains, when it can secure funding.

Last fall, Caltrain's governing board unveiled an ambitious "rapid rail" plan to speed up trains by 20 percent, through repairs, station closures and electrification.

But that plan overestimated local contributions from Caltrain's constituent agencies -- Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. The new reality-based plan, at $343 million, puts off electrification while repairing and modernizing. Jumping first into electrification would be more expensive and less effective.

On March 4, Caltrain's board, hampered by the absence of three directors, lacked the votes to approve the rapid rail plan. The plan deserves to pass on a re-hearing April 1. Further delay would likely jeopardize funding.

Competition for transit dollars is fierce, especially in an area where the public is clamoring for transportation relief. If Caltrain dithers, its plans, whatever they end up being, will end up far down the waiting list for federal funds.

Improvements were already derailed once, after Willie Brown became San Francisco's mayor and effectively killed Caltrain's downtown extension. Two years after regrouping and producing the rapid-rail plan, guess what? San Francisco representatives, following their mayor's change-of-mind, now want the downtown extension moved off the back burner and up to "do now" status.

Caltrain directors should say: Fine. Get in line. While there's no harm in dusting off environmental studies for the one-mile extension, rejuggling priorities would put off any project far into the future. Federal funds will pay only a portion of the cost of a downtown extension, and there are no local pots of gold to fund the rest.

That delay may be fine for San Francisco, where "referendum" and "redesign" go hand-in-hand with transportation projects -- consider the Central Freeway and the Bay Bridge.

It's not good enough for the rest of the Bay Area. And last-minute changes are fair neither to Caltrain's other partner agencies, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, nor to Caltrain riders.

Caltrain is a key link in Bay Area transit. Directors should keep their plan on track, and not be distracted by competing ideas and changes of heart.

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Last updated: April 18, 1999

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