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Getting the trains to the station


California’s high-speed rail project has taken a beating over the past couple of months. The price tag for building the super fast train is now expected to be almost $100 billion, more than twice what voters approved in 2008. The High-Speed Rail Authority, which is designing and planning the project, has to convince voters – and an increasingly skeptical Legislature – that funding high-speed rail is feasible.

Dan Richards, the new head of the High-Speed Rail Authority, says that one way to bring down the cost of the train would be to speed up improvements to local transit systems along its path.  In the Bay Area, some people are trying to make sure we see those improvements, even if the fast trains never come.

The new Transbay Terminal is a $4.2 billion project. By 2017, the upper level will be a modern transit hub for Muni and regional bus lines. The lower level will be a train station designed for high-speed rail and a newly-electrified Caltrain.

The terminal itself is fully funded by a combination of a federal loan and $400 million in stimulus money, but building the tracks that would actually get trains to the terminal is not. Right now, Caltrain tracks stop at 4th and King Streets in San Francisco, about a mile and a half from the station.

“That's raised questions about well, what does that mean for Transbay and your future funding,” says Scott Boule. Boule is in charge of legislative affairs and community outreach for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority – that’s the group overseeing the project.

Boule says at this point, the Authority board isn’t relying on high-speed rail funds to finish building the tracks. Instead, they’re pursuing additional federal loans and revenues from property taxes on the land around the new terminals. They’re also considering something called the Fast Start Proposal. It’s a pitch for early funding from regional transit agencies in the Bay Area and L.A.

“When the most recent draft of the business plan came out, it didn't have high-speed rail coming into San Francisco until 2034,” says Boule. “And many of us, including our mayor, were not happy with the prospect of waiting until 2034.”

With Fast Start, those improvements would happen much sooner. Transit agencies would have access to almost $2 billion in high-speed rail bond funds to start fixing up their own networks. The projects would get underway at the same time as the first phase of high-speed rail construction in the Central Valley.

Rail Authority officials say that shortening the project timetable would lower its overall costs, while providing immediate benefits––a solution that makes moving forward more palatable for everyone. And, they say, doing the work simultaneously means that by the time the high-speed rail line is complete, the rest of the transit network will be ready for it.

Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director for SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. He says planners are trying to “get a little money from the state, a little from the feds, and then a lot of local money and go ahead and do a big Caltrain upgrade.”

SPUR is part of a group of regional planners who are working up specific, local ideas for what the high-speed rail bond money could help build.

“We are about $2 billion short to extend Caltrain from 4th and King to the Transbay Terminal,” says Metcalf. “So that is really the next thing we've got to focus on.” Once the tracks reach the terminal, Metcalf says Caltrain would connect to a high-speed rail station in San Jose.

“It could just be the difference between a local and an express train. Hopefully it will be the same ticket,” says Metcalf. “You might be going to San Jose, or you might be going to Los Angeles.”

Eventually, high-speed rail trains would run all the way into San Francisco on Caltrain’s tracks. But for that to happen, construction of the high-speed rail line has to keep moving. This is why the Central Valley is essential to Fast Start. The federal government has said that high-speed rail construction has to begin there. But in the short term, Metcalf says local upgrades are more important. “We're actually going to have a lot more riders in the San Jose to San Francisco segment,” he says.

Right now, around 45,000 people ride Caltrain between Silicon Valley and San Francisco every day. Seamus Murphy, Caltrain’s government affairs manager, says right now Caltrain can’t carry any more passengers. But with these improvements, they could carry as many as 70,000 people. The Fast Start plan would help pay for switching Caltrain from diesel-powered trains to electric ones. That would cost around $1.5 billion, could be completed in six years, and would increase the system’s capacity dramatically.

“If we have an opportunity to electrify the Caltrain system early and prepare the corridor for future high-speed rail service, then that gives us a lot of utility for Caltrain riders and for the region’s transit systems in the interim while we're waiting for high-speed rail to be delivered to the Bay Area,” says Murphy.

In the meantime, a big question lingers: What if no new money comes through?

“This is something that the federal government and stakeholders around the state are thinking about,” Murphy says. “And they want to make sure that when we're talking about a project of this size, with such a big gap in the funding that's been identified and the funding that's needed, that the investments that we're making early are investments that have immediate utility and would have utility regardless of the outcome of the high speed rail project in California.”

The High-Speed Rail Authority will present a revised business plan to its board on April 5, 2012.