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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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CalTrain--Trends and Implications

Uploaded: Jan 30, 2014
This column explores the importance of CalTrain service to the peninsula and Palo Alto and the policy implications.

The basic data and trends

Average weekday ridership has grown from 24,000 in 2004 to 53,000 in the second half of 2013.

Most of these are in the peak hours in the morning and evening. To get a rough comparison of how this relates to traffic on 101, Caltrans reports that peak hour volumes are between 14,000 and 17,000 cars on the most congested parts of 101. So the CalTrain ridership and especially the growth are important traffic demand management tools into the communities near the stations.

The University Avenue station is the second busiest CalTrain station after San Francisco with about 5,500 average daily trips up from 2,400 in 2004. Most of these trips are peak hour trips. In the morning roughly 1,000 people get on mostly going north and roughly 3,500 people get off at the University Avenue station mostly coming from the north. But roughly 1/3 of the trips are to and from southern stations.

The increase in train traffic is the result of 1) the introduction of the bullet trains, 2) the Stanford and other shuttle services that meet trains and 3) the growth of start ups in the downtown area.

Policy Implications—Capacity constraints looming

These trains provide a great service to residents, to employers and University facilities near the stations and to passengers who get a larger choice of where they can live and commute more easily. They relieve what is already bad congestion on Highway 101.

But the peak hour service is nearing capacity while the economy up and down the peninsula continues to add jobs. It is in the common interest of all communities along the CalTrain line to support policies that allow CalTrain to expand capacity as soon as possible.

Policy Implications—parking near the station

Some riders bike to the station, some walk and some are dropped off. Some park in the CalTrain station but anecdotal evidence is that some riders drive to the station and park in adjacent neighborhoods and become part of the problems that residents are complaining about.

Both to support continued use and growth of CalTrain while helping reduce neighborhood parking, it would be helpful for the city to collect information about how many CalTrain riders are parking not at the station and why.

Policy implications—handling future growth

The CalTrain service if able to expand and add parking capacity will be a valuable part of the ability of peninsula communities to absorb the growth in jobs and housing that is coming. Not everyone lives or works near a station but concentrating future growth near stations while adding innovative shuttle, bike or other "last mile" services can minimize the impact of growth on local traffic while expanding opportunities to live in walkable neighborhoods.


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Posted by commuter, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Caltrain is not "nearing capacity". Caltrain is already overloaded. Many rush-hour trains are standing-room-only and standing up on a crowded bouncy train for an hour is not a pleasant experience. It is really no wonder that those "Google busses" are so popular. The county just wasted $100 million of your sales tax dollars building new merging lanes on Hwy 101 in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. That money would have been much better spent expanding Caltrain service, such as electrifying the trains and adding new train cars.

Companies are doing a better job with the "last mile" issue by implementing shuttles and bike-share so people can get from the train stations to work. The "first mile" issue remains a problem, since there are no bike share stations in Palo Alto neighborhoods and most Palo Alto neighborhoods are not serviced by the city shuttle bus or by VTA.

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Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Caltrain ridership numbers are notoriously unreliable, and probably must be seen with an error margin of perhaps as much as 20%. The ridership data is tapped during late Jan. thru late Feb. when school is in. Moreover, the data is expressed as daily boardings rather than in terms of unique people, which would reduce the ridership numbers by about half--from 47,600 boardings to about 23,000 people. Caltrain has begun to insure that riders have tickets, so ticket and pass data, on a monthly basis, might make their data more clear.

2013 Caltrain Ridership Data:
Web Link

Steve Levy's comparisons about Caltrain per hour use and Highway 101 use is totally botched. The total daily use for each system needs to be considered, which does not seem to be reflected in Levy's narrative. Admittedly peak-hour use is important, but total system use needs to be fully visible in these discussions.

Missing from the Caltrain report is the theoretical number of cars that their trains could carry. The report offers 650 seated passengers per train, but does not give any insight into how many cars could be added safely to increase the capacity of each train on the line. There also is an inter-train safety gap which limits the number of trains traveling on a given line at a given time. Not certain Caltrain has ever published this number.

And then there is the matter of GoPasses--which are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers via local sales taxes--

Caltrain GoPasses as Corporate Subsidy:
Web Link

The financial accounting for Caltrain leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion. It is virtually impossible to get information about the total amount spent on the system, so that the per-ride subsidy can be computed. It's almost as if these people believe that the economics of running a rail road don't apply to them. The yearly farebox recovery is not readily available (last time I looked, anyway) on the Caltrain web-site. This number has been around 45% in the past, but not certain that Caltrain has been able to link increased ridership to increased revenues--given how steep the discount for GoPass users is.

Another bit of data missing from the ridership data is the distance traveled by riders. In the past, some data had emerged that a significant number of people were using the train to travel less than 20 miles. If that is so--then it probably would pay to increase the cost of these short hop rides, since trains are not economical as buses. The recent reduction of SamTrans service to Palo Alto needs to be better understood in light of increased Caltrain use.

Google's buses show that direct bus service works for some. It would pay for more study to see how much Caltrain traffic could be diverted to buses, and at what savings.

The increase in Caltrain use is not particularly earth shattering--even though it might seem so to some who don't take the time to actually look at the numbers.

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Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Caltrain is not doing anything to help the situation.

They have no off peak pricing to encourage off peak travel. They also have no effective transfer service at either end without having to pay 3 fares to 3 different agencies.

I recently went to San Francisco off peak and gave myself plenty of time to find parking but found it difficult to do this in time and not miss my train as well as pay for parking and buy my ticket. This simple activity should take seconds, and in fact took plenty of time due to confusion and poor design, I would not have managed without the help of a regular who explained the process. When arriving in San Francisco there was no one to ask about how to get into downtown. Customer service is appalling.

And for those who do wish to pay for parking downtown, they use the Caltrain lots for $5 per day and then walk into town, I know I saw them do it. It is a lot easier than trying to find all day parking in a garage. If only there were some pay per hour machines in all city lots and garages for $5 per day, I suspect there would be more Caltrain parking available for those who arrive at University station and want to park after 9.00 am.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by commuter, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 7:26 pm

Caltrain is in the train business, not the parking business. They should charge the market rate for parking, then non-passengers would not have an incentive to steal spaces from Caltrain passengers. Use the money they generate from parking to improve train service or reduce train fares.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Caltrain only runs 5-car trains. It could accommodate many more passengers if it would increase the number of cars on each train. This would also allow everyone to have a seat, instead of forcing many people to stand for their entire trip -- which is not kind, nor is it a way to keep passengers.

Caltrain locomotives could easily pull 10 cars. But hte huge problem is that when Caltrain rebuilt most stations, they made the platforms far too short to allow trains longer than 5 cars to let passengers off all cars at the same time. With the new short platforms, longer trains would have to "double-stop" at many stations: open only the doors on the front half of the train, et passengers off, move the train forward, then open the doors in the rear half of the train. This would confuse all new riders, and take more time at each station, but is the only easy and cheap way to accommodate many more passengers per train -- all seated.

About Caltrain customer service: They are nice people, but they rarely seem to know much about details of why anything happened, or what is really going on. To get really good answers, you have to talk to someone else. Oh -- and Caltrain Customer Service people, beside being much better informed, should answer calls from 5 am to midnight, 7 days a week. Allowing that very important service to be closed while trains are still running is not helpful to passengers at all. Where to get the money to pay for expanding this essential service? The multiple millions wasted on endless studies of HSR (can you say "boondoggle"?) would be a great start.

And about the much-hyped "Baby Bullet" trains -- they are merely express trains, and go no faster than Southern Pacific's steam-locomotive-powered express trains did long ago. I am glad Caltrain runs express trains, but my point is that they are nothing new. What is new are the "reverse-peak" expresses -- southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. That is now essential.

The "last-mile" problem will not be easy to solve, but much can be done. Perhaps a fleet of taxis (in excellent condition, with certified drivers, unlike most taxis) could be dispatched to pick people up in the morning and take them to the Caltrain stations, and then take them home in the evening. And, yes, these must be publicly subsidized. (There will be plenty of money for essential public services, such as this, if the 1% and their corporations would be required to pay a fair level of taxes. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society -- fair taxes.)

To sum up: Caltrain should buy many more cars and locomotives and run much longer trains -- and redo most stations to handle those much longer trains.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Garrett83, a resident of another community,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Garrett83 is a registered user.

The whole thing needs to be rebuilt, redesigned and modernized. Rush hour use might be full, but can't a transit system on commuters.

Even where most people are far from a train station. Why not add branch lines, wasn't Foothill Expressway a train line?

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Steve Levy, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Steve Levy is a registered user.

I see CalTrain as a vital part of our public transportation system that also includes the publicly financed highways.

Despite Wayne Martin's put down, a doubling of traffic for the system and for Palo Alto ridership is a sign of success and increasing use for this part of our commute options to reduce highway traffic and attach more trips to walking and shuttle last mile access.

I support the calls made by posters for investments to increase capacity for ridership and parking but note that these efforts will require a new funding source.

CalTrain unlike other public transportation systems does not have an independent public financing source and is dependent on inconsistent and not in their control funding from VTA and SamTrans. At this moment there are simply no funds for major expansions.

Fare revenues have been rising in line with ridership growth but fare revenues are only a part of the funding used for all public systems and leave no margin for large capital investments.

I am interested if there are readers who use and or appreciate the role of CalTrain in providing non car access up and down the peninsula.

So far as is normal in Town Square most posters are grumpy about something or other.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Steve Levy, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Steve Levy is a registered user.

To clear up a few points made by posters.

CalTrain unlike other public transportation systems including highways does not have its own public funding source, In addition to fare revenues, which have been rising with ridership, CalTrain is dependent on essentially handouts from VTA and Samtrans and thus cannot do long term capital planning.

To implement the suggestions of posters a new revenue source such as a sales tax dedicated to CalTrain as we have for BART and VTA is required.

In addition money from city operations or highway funds cannot be transferred to CalTRain. They are different systems.

Wayne Martin is correct that the ridership count measures trips and that the number of unique riders is roughly half of the ridership total since most make round trips on weekdays.

But he is wrong in contending that the growth is not exceptional and important--far higher than in most regional systems. And he is also wrong in contending that the numbers are "notoriously unreliable". 1) It is the upward trend that is interesting and 2) the fare revenue gains add credibility to the ridership trends.

And it is precisely the peak hour travel where the spillover public benefits are large from reducing highway usage in the peak times.

The CalTrain cars on the new trains are double cars and on the older trains more than five cars are used. I would love to see more cars if that is technically and financially possible. Right now though the capacity is 650 riders without standing per train in the peak.

@ commuter. I am all for paid parking--at CalTRain and elsewhere downtown. What did you mean about they are not in the parking business (but the train business) and should charge market rate? Aren't they already charging more than any place else downtown? Please explain what you are thinking about paid parking downtown.

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Posted by Parent, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 6:14 pm

It certainly is too bad then that the politicians in charge at the state level then are ignoring local commute solutions that help us get around daily, and help us get cars off the road, in favor of funneling resources and land to high speed rail, which will be a double whammy for Caltrain. Not withstanding the electrification bone they're throwing in, HSR will quickly be shown to be a $$$$ black hole, sucking in any/all transit, Cap & Trade, and any other 'loose change' the governor and his buddies can throw at it. AND secondly, their plans for running HSR on shared tracks with Caltrain will only steal capacity from Caltrain. Severely.

Or they might decide they really like Alma street for high speed dedicated track expansion, or they might decide they like high ariels, or that they really like the properties on the west side of the tracks....

Not to mention - they'll decide they really REALLY like the real estate development potential around the palo alto station, and they'll seize all that too (for their own development profit generating operation - which was just recently passed legislation - that they can seize as much as they want - not necessarily needed for rail operation, but whatever they want for revenue generating purposes.

So HSR on the Caltrain tracks is the thing you really should be worried about in terms of protecting and improving the future potential of Caltrain as a commuter rail line. Frankly, all this TOD around the stations now, is going to result in a lot of sad people stuffed in to packed-like-sardines high rises butting up to a lot of nasty train operation in the not too distant future. I'm surprised people are willing to buy within eyesight or earshot of the tracks at all these days.

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Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Caltrans publishes a fair amount of data on its highways. The following documents the travel demand for District 4, which includes San Francisco, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County?

2012 Travel Demand: 26.8B vehicle miles
San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties: ~10B vehicle miles
San Francisco/San Mateo/Santa Clara County population: ~3.5M people

Using the Caltrain data:

Daily unique riders: 25,000 people
Average daily travel demand: 100 miles/person
Number of days: 365

Travel demand: 1M train-miles (more-or-less)

Given that the Peninsula has about half of the population in Caltrans District 4, let?s say that the vehicle travel demand is between 11B-13B vehicle-miles (more-of-less).

So .. highway demand vs Caltrain demand is about 13B to 1M or 13,000 to 1.

Steve Levy may be impressed by Caltrains impact on the District 4 transportation demand, but it?s really hard to see how he comes by that notion.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Heather, a resident of another community,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm

I don't understand why San Fran takes no responsibility for funding? Why does it only fall on VTA and SAMTrans? I take the Caltrain and work in San Fran. The San Fran Caltrain stop is the busiest. Why would San Fran transportation companies not share in the responsibility? Especially as mentioned above, that ridership has increased from 4th/King station. Meaning San Fran residents are using it to get to the Peninsula and SouthBay. Any explination for why it only falls on VTA & SAMTrans?

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Posted by Heather, a resident of another community,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Deleted, accidental duplicate of above post

 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 1, 2014 at 10:43 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Heather, you are correct and the SF transit agency does in fact contribute to CalTrain operational funding. See the post below.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 1, 2014 at 11:06 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

CalTrain faces an immediate fiscal challenge (which could be called the Save CalTrain challenge) and a longer term challenge (which is about planning for expansion of service capacity.

The immediate challenge is that CalTrain has no dedicated revenue source and depends primarily on 1( fare, parking and rental income; 2)allocations from the three peninsular county transit agencies and 3) one time grants.

Since 2007 fare revenue has doubled from $33 million to $66 million as a result of a surge in ridership and some fare increases. Parking, rental and shuttle income has grown from $7 million to $10 million.

But allocations from member agencies have declined from $37 million to $31 million and one time revenue has risen from $9 to $13 million.

BUT SamTrans has substantially cut its annual contribution and the $31 million includes a large amount of one-time special funding that will end in the middle of 2014.

CalTrain, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and others are working to explore options to at least keep the current operations going, which have sen a doubling of ridership in the past decade.

The longer term challenge is to fund and complete electrification, which will increase capacity and the share of revenues paid by riders and to expand the number of cars and trains and make station modification and grade crossing upgrades as appropriate to handle the increased ridership.

For why meeting these challenges is important to residents and the eccnomy see the post below.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 1, 2014 at 11:34 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

One public benefit of CalTrain (as with all public transportation) is that it serves residents who do not drive. This is one of the rational for public subsidies.

Another public benefit is that it reduces parking demand in the communities near stations. In the morning peak 3,500 riders get off at the University Avenue station and another 700 at Cal Ave and San Antonio. That is 4,200 people not trying to find parking in the morning. This is one of the reasons that Stanford and others help pay for CalTrain passes for riders.

Imagine another 3,500 morning commuters trying to park if there were no CalTrain.

But there is also a real benefit to Highway 101 users despite Wayne Martin's attempt to minimize the influence of CalTrain. Wayne is certainly correct that overall freeway usage swamps CalTrain usage BUT in the peak morning commute where even an additional 5% or 10% increase in traffic can ruin an already crowded freeway, CalTRain IS very helpful.

the California Transportation Department (Caltrans not be to confused with CalTrain) estimates that the peak hour flow in our area going south is around 14,000 venbicle. The peak morning ridership (all hours) getting off between Redwood City and Mountain View is around 5,000 riders. Divide that by 3 and you get around 1,700 in the peak hour. That is more than 10% of the corresponding peak traffic flow on 101 and I think makes quite a difference.

Moreover, ridership has grown faster than jobs and much faster than population on the peninsula so the contribution of CalTrain to handling our traffic is growing and will grow further if we can expand capacity.

The title of my blog is Invest or Die or in this case Invest or Strangle in traffic and parking.

CalTrain seems like a really good public investment to me.

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Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Marie is a registered user.

One article on Caltrain I read on PAOnline suggested that CalTrain had an agreement with HSR (CHSRA) not to run more than 6 trains an hour. Is there any truth to this? I only saw this once with no attribution. I can understand some agreement once HSR is up and running (if ever), but is it possible that it could be a constraint today?

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Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 2, 2014 at 6:19 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Good question Marie. I don't know the answer but see below.

Right now they run 4 or 5 trains at peak hour so it is not a constraint.

With electrification they can run more, perhaps 6 or 7.

HSR if ever is a long way off, further out than electrification is planned.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 12:36 pm

@ Garrett83:

There was an electric streetcar company (Peninsular Railway) that ran a line from Vasona Junction (85/Winchester Blvd) along part of the Southern Pacific line and then onto Foothill Expressway. Then the route traveled parallel to Page Mill Road down to Stanford University. My grandfather took this railway to commute to Palo Alto Senior HS from Los Altos in the early 1920's.

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Posted by Neil Shea, a resident of University South,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Wayne - you missed some digits - 25k * 100 * 365 = ~1B or about 10% of freeway traffic. When 101 is slammed, that makes a difference

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Wha?, a resident of another community,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 7:37 pm

I ride Caltrain into Palo Alto almost every day. A few observations:
I was told by someone that 6 cars is the maximum they can hook up due to the length of the side tracks used to pull over when an engine fails or needs to get off the tracks. I believe a train employee mentioned that when we chatted about over crowding, which is way worse when the Giants are playing in SF.
Standing room only indicates good use of this service. No argument really refutes that statement. Less traffic on 101 is a very good thing indeed.
The trains allow 6-8 minutes between trains. That is for safety. You can figure out how many trains that is an hour. They can only go so fast, and they must allow time for the occaisional pick up of a handicapped person in a wheel chair or other special needs riders. No one wants the system stopped completely by one train, so they allow wiggle room.
I REALLY wish they would upgrade or keep in better repair their engines. I experience at least 3-4 delayed trains a month due to engine trouble, and I only ride the commute hours/days.
Finally, I really enjoy taking the train, and I am pleased by how many young people are riding these days. Very European and very cool.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Emma Isabella, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

The California Avenue Station (and parking lot) is substantially underused because it does not have a baby bullet train stop. There are many people who would use Cal Ave more but instead drive to University Avenue and park there because they prefer to take the baby bullets. Caltrain should have at least one am rush hour and pm rush hour stop at Cal Ave instead of, or in addition to the University Ave stop. That would take some of the pressure off the overcrowded University Ave parking lot, which currently is being heavily used by construction workers, forcing late arriving commuters to park elsewhere.

With respect to Caltrain customer service, their communication is abysmal and needs improvement. Commuters need timely information regarding malfunctions, accidents, express trains turned into local trains, etc.

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Posted by Emma Isabella, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

Accidental duplicate of above post

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Posted by Steve Levy, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

Steve Levy is a registered user.

Thanks to recent posters sharing their experiences of using CalTrain and how service can be improved.

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Posted by Occasional User, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Steve, you asked Commuter about the parking fees. All day downtown parking permits cost $16. That\\\\\\\'s a lot more than $5 a day--and the downtown area is not much further away than from the High and Bryant St. garages.

Once you get to SF, it\\\\\\\'s easy to use the streetcar system now. When the weather\\\\\\\'s pleasant, it\\\\\\\'s not a bad walk to Market St. Using buses is problematical for non-SF residents who visit only occasionally. Using CalTrain and associated connections has a big drawback--you can\\\\\\\'t do it if you\\\\\\\'re in a hurry. Ideal if you have a book to read or friends to chat with.

It makes no sense to me to charge higher rates for short hops. To do so forces more cars on the road, and can impact the many students who take the train to various destinations during the school day.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Elaine, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 8, 2014 at 9:46 am

I think we should have a "take your car to work" day, when EVERYONE in the Bay Area drives to work. (Steve, maybe a friend can drive you .) Then we can see if the public wants to provide a more reliable source of funding for Caltrain.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 8, 2014 at 9:54 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks elaine. Maybe to avoid the pain that would cause, one of our local talents could develop an app for freeway users that would flash "here's how fast you would be going now if there were no CalTrain or BART".

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Martin, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 11, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Regarding Parent\'s post:
"Or they might decide they really like Alma street for high speed dedicated track expansion, or they might decide they like high ariels, or that they really like the properties on the west side of the tracks...."

Actually it\'s Alma street and cars that took land from Southern Pacific. Taking Alma would return land to rightful owners.

Let\'s do hypothetical.. People of california vote for HSR. How would Palo Alto prefer to deal with it where right of way is not wide enough for 4 tracks:
a) Use eminent domain to remove 10ft of back yard from some residents.
b) Remove one lane of Alma.

Doing neither is not an option.

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