Almanac

Viewpoint - April 30, 2014

Editorial: Cities not fans of Caltrain electrification

If the reaction of Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto are any indication, Caltrain is in for some rough sledding in its effort to win approval of the draft environmental impact report on the electrification of its rail service between San Francisco and San Jose.

Each community has specific concerns about Caltrain's plan to retire most of its diesel locomotives and replace them with cleaner-operating electric powered trains that would start and stop faster and ultimately enable the system to ramp up to 69,000 passengers a day in 2020 from 47,000 today. Caltrain forecasts a huge increase to 111,000 riders a day by 2040.

But Midpeninsula communities have major concerns about Caltrain's long-awaited upgrade to electric power, including:

• A huge loss of trees in the Caltrain right-of-way, which would total 2,200 along the Peninsula, with another 3,000 pruned, all to make way for the 30-to-50-foot-tall poles on either side of the tracks that would carry electric wires the length of the corridor. Atherton would lose 142 heritage trees, Menlo Park, 188, and Palo Alto, 177. Many more would have to be pruned, a worrisome task for cities that have an especially high regard for all the trees inside their borders.

• Atherton in particular questions Caltrain's claim that electrifying the system will reduce the greenhouse gases released by diesel engines, saying an analysis should be done on the environmental impact of generating electric power for the trains. The comment added that Caltrain should consider an alternative — running cleaner diesel engines that can substantially reduce the amount of pollution caused by present equipment.

• The impact report frequently mentions that a goal of electrification is to make Caltrain compatible with high-speed trains, when, and if, they arrive in the future. Atherton claims that such a linkage would require Caltrain to fully analyze the environmental impact of the entire high-speed-rail project. Menlo Park says it will only accept an underground plan or a two-track blended system for high-speed trains within the existing Caltrain right-of-way.

Atherton's comments were particularly pointed, and implied the threat of litigation if Caltrain did not consider alternate designs and did not cite high-speed rail as a major reason for moving ahead with electrification.

Menlo Park resident Adina Levin, a supporter of electrification, said she hopes that neither Atherton nor Menlo Park resort to a lawsuit that would halt or delay the electrification project.

Questions also were raised about the $1.5 billion in funding that local legislators managed to pull out of the 2008 high-speed-rail bond issue. Atherton says a pending challenge to all high-speed-rail funding could pull away whatever is left of the electrification funding.

Palo Alto, in addition to its concerns about pruning the some 3,000 trees on the route, also worries that its historic tree, El Palo Alto, would be damaged in the trimming process. The 1,000-year-old redwood is a registered historical site and sits on the Menlo Park-Palo Alto border.

More questions were raised by the three cities about noise, traffic impact around stations, and the backup when intersections are blocked when a train passes by. More riders and more trains will increase trips to and from stations and could cause backups.

The environmental impact report process requires Caltrain to answer all questions raised by those commenting on the DEIR, and lay out ways for any concerns to be mitigated if possible. Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto have raised serious questions that need to be answered before electrification can go ahead.

We believe it is a good thing for Caltrain to electrify its trains, making them faster, quieter and less polluting. At the same time the railroad should give serious consideration to reducing the number of trees that would be lost or pruned, perhaps by installing power poles in the center of its right-of-way. That would go a long way to making the electrification plan more palatable to Peninsula cities.

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