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Atherton Joins HSR Opponents to Sue Caltrain; Menlo Park Drops Its Suit

The Town of Atherton alleges that the review of the Caltrain/High Speed Rail Blended System’s environmental impacts cannot be segmented into two separate environmental impact reports. Image: CAHSR

Last week, the Town of Atherton teamed up with opponents of California High-Speed Rail to file a lawsuit against Caltrain [PDF]. The City of Menlo Park, meanwhile, dropped threats to file a similar lawsuit, one week after listing five issues that the city wants Caltrain to resolve.

Caltrain must complete its electrification project before it starts sharing track, in what’s known as the blended system, with high-speed trains, which are scheduled to start running in 2029The lawsuit from Atherton and two groups opposed to CAHSR asserts that Caltrain violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by conducting environmental impact reports of electrification and the blended system separately, rather than a single project.

“If the project is truly a stand-alone project — independent of serving as a precursor to the blended system – it is hard to understand why providing electrical infrastructure compatible with the blended system should be a major project purpose,” states the lawsuit.

The suit argues that the impacts of several changes for the blended track system weren’t disclosed in the electrification EIR: The reconstruction of curved sections of track for 110 mph trains, the cumulative traffic impacts on at-grade crossings when high-speed trains overtake Caltrain trains, and how high-speed trains sharing the tracks could limit the expansion of Caltrain service in the future.

Caltrain officials said that because the electrification and CAHSR each have “independent utility,” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows them to be analyzed in separate environmental documents.

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Pedestrian Access to South San Francisco Caltrain Station Gets a Boost

Passengers currently have to access the South San Francisco Caltrain station via the Grand Avenue overpass and walk across the tracks to board trains. Photo: Andrew Boone

The South San Francisco Caltrain station is set to get better walking connections to downtown and a more spacious boarding area after the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) Board awarded a grant for station reconstruction last Thursday.

The $59 million project will widen the center platform and build a pedestrian tunnel re-connecting the station directly to the east end of downtown’s Grand Avenue. Passengers will no longer need to climb an overpass to get to the station or walk across train tracks to board. Instead they will be able to get to the station’s center platform via ramps connecting to a tunnel underneath the tracks.

“This is a vast improvement in safety that will also increase connections to businesses nearby,” said SMCTA Board member and Burlingame City Council member Terry Nagel at the meeting.

Currently the only access to the Caltrain station is from the west side of the train tracks, via a Grand Avenue overpass that spans the tracks directly above the station itself. This overpass requires a long and uncomfortable detour for people walking and bicycling, who have to cross the highway-like, six-lane Grand Avenue and descend either a tall metal staircase or a long frontage road on-ramp.

The overpass and its retaining walls also create a gloomy and unwelcoming area for passengers to wait. With the Caltrain station wedged in between the tracks and Highway 101 and access only available from the west side, passengers arriving by bus or car must also follow circuitous routes to reach the platform.

Walking to the South San Francisco Caltrain requires passing under Highway 101 (upper left), up a long sidewalk on the Grand Avenue overpass (upper right), and down a tall metal staircase (bottom). Photos: Andrew Boone

“The current configuration is a major barrier for residents and employees since it hinders those who need to walk or bike from downtown or BART to our major biotech employers on the east side of the city,” wrote the South San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and representatives of several biotech and real estate companies in identical letters of support.

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Menlo Park and Atherton Threaten Lawsuits Against Caltrain Electrification

Caltrain plans to operate 114 daily trains (up from 92 daily trains today) after converting its diesel trains to electric by 2021. Image: Caltrain

Both the city of Menlo Park and the town of Atherton have threatened to sue Caltrain over its planned conversion from diesel to electric trains, if certain conditions are not met. The municipalities requested a 30-day extension of the Friday deadline to file a lawsuit.

Menlo Park’s demands include increased service to its Caltrain station, “particularly during non-peak hours,” and for Caltrain to pay for “appropriately designed and built grade separation” to avoid delaying motorists at crossings. The city also wants Caltrain to list all of the significant and “heritage” trees that will be removed, and to replace them with three times as many 36-inch box trees.

Similarly, Atherton is demanding better Caltrain service. The town’s station, located at Atherton Avenue, is the next station north of Menlo Park.

While the electrification plan does anticipate more frequent service at all Caltrain stations, agency officials say it’s far too early to commit to specific service levels with electric trains, which won’t be running until 2020 at the earliest. By that time, Caltrain expects daily ridership to grow by over 15,000 trips and for travel patterns to change. In addition, the agency plans to conduct outreach on scheduling preferences closer to the completion of electrification.

“Increasing ridership based on threatened litigation is not how Caltrain should do service planning,” Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin wrote in a blog post about the letters last week. “With even less realism, Menlo Park is also demanding that Caltrain fund grade separations.”

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Coming to Caltrain: Longer Trains With More Room for Bikes

Caltrain Bombarier Bike Car With Folding Bikes

Caltrain’s Bombardier trains currently only carry 48 bikes each. With trains receiving a third bike car, 72 bikes can fit on board. Photo: John Woodell/Twitter

Caltrain will add a third bike car to all six of its Bombardier trains, Executive Director Michael Scanlon announced at the transit agency’s monthly board of directors meeting last week. With the new cars, bike capacity will increase from 48 to 72 on each of the Bombardier trains. But it could take up to one year to place the six-car trains into service.

The new bike cars are part of a larger $15 million project to acquire and refurbish 16 used rail cars from Los Angeles Metrolink, adding about 2,000 seats across Caltrain’s fleet. The agency’s 15 older gallery-style trains already carry 80 bikes each, since seats are not placed in the center of the two bike cars on those trains, and will not receive more bike capacity.

Crowding on Caltrain is becoming increasingly severe during the morning and evening rush. A record 61,670 passengers packed into the agency’s five-car trains on an average weekday in October 2014, and “standing room only” is now the norm during peak hours. With ridership growing more than 10 percent each year since 2009, the trend shows no sign of stopping. New office space and housing construction in San Francisco, along El Camino Real in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and within walking distance of Caltrain stations are also quickly filling up any remaining passenger capacity even on trains running outside the traditional commute times.

The number of passengers bringing bicycles on Caltrain has grown four times faster than overall ridership since 2008. Strong growth in the Bay Area’s tech and finance economies continues to bring thousands more workers every year to suburban office developments located far from any practical rail or bus services — making train-plus-bike the only feasible alternative to commuting by car.

Caltrain officials were initially leaning toward adding refurbished rail cars to the Bombardier fleet with total seating for about 650 passengers but no spaces for bikes. That would have actually cut the share of passengers who can bring a bike on board compared to the status quo, even as bike-plus-train trips continue to outpace overall Caltrain ridership growth.

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Caltrain Struggles to Meet Bike Parking Demand at 4th and King Station

Caltrain’s Bike Hub facility will soon give commuters a choice between valet or self parking. Photo: Yelp.

The Caltrain Bike Station parking facility outside its terminal at Fourth and King streets is set to be remodeled and slightly expanded to accommodate the growing number of Peninsula train commuters who are arriving by bike. But demand from bike-to-Caltrain commuters may continue to overwhelm the small, staffed bike station.

Paltry funding over the years proved insufficient for Warm Planet Bikes, the original parking station operator, even after Caltrain approved an additional $50,000 in 2012. Warm Planet operated the space as both a bike shop and parking station from 2008 until last year, but parked bikes blocked merchandise and cut into their revenue.

Within the first six months, the facility was already over its capacity. “When we opened the facility, we knew that the space was smaller than the original project required,” said Kash, the owner and president of Warm Planet Bikes, now operating as a full-time bike shop on mid-Market Street.

In 2013, Caltrain selected BikeHub through a competitive bid for a 3-year, $245,000 contract to operate the space. Despite a doubling of capacity to 200 spots, demand has not let up. Josh Carroll, who manages the bike station, says he has squeezed in up to 250 bikes on the busiest days.

Caltrain now intends to remodel the bike station to accommodate more overflow bike parking, said Caltrain spokesperson Christine Dunn. The remodeled facility will offer a combination of valet and self parking for Caltrain commuters, allowing riders to park their own bikes while the station is unstaffed, whether early in the morning or late at night.

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Voters Back Downtown Growth in San Bruno and Menlo Park

Simulated view at San Mateo Avenue and El Camino Real in San Bruno of retail and office developments that are now possible. Image: Yes on Measure N

Tuesday’s election saw large majorities of San Bruno and Menlo Park voters approve plans for substantial new downtown development. The plans could potentially transform both downtowns by bringing several thousand more workers and residents within walking distance of the two Peninsula cities’ Caltrain stations, both improving transit ridership and making the downtowns livelier, more livable places.

San Bruno’s Measure N, approved by 67 percent of voters, raises height limits for new buildings on the city’s downtown commercial streets. Menlo Park’s Measure M would have slowed growth by placing new restrictions and caps on future downtown development, but it was rejected by 62 percent of voters.

Both cities grew up with traditional downtowns centered around railroad stations, and both have a grid of pre-war streets centered on their Caltrain stations and El Camino Real, the Peninsula’s historic main street and a major bus corridor. Neither San Bruno nor Menlo Park have attracted higher density, mixed-use development to their downtowns, unlike larger cities in San Mateo County like San Mateo or Redwood City.

“I believe our planners have done sound work to revitalize our downtown, and surrounding neighborhoods, as a vibrant mixed-use area with jobs, housing, new shops and beautiful public places in close proximity to our Caltrain station,” said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane of the city’s Transit Corridors Plan, which required Measure N’s passage before it could be implemented, according to city officials. “We need housing, and we need it desperately,” said Ruane.

City planners expect that the passage of Measure N, and the recent relocation of San Bruno’s Caltrain station to San Bruno and San Mateo avenues, will spur major office development north of the station. Photo: Andrew Boone

Measure N repeals several provisions set forth in Ordinance 1284, a 1977 initiative which slowed commercial and residential development in San Bruno by requiring that voters approve plans for any building exceeding 50 feet (or three stories) in height. Voters have approved two such construction projects since then: the Tanforan indoor shopping mall in 1984, and The Crossing, an 835-unit, five-story residential development, in 2001.

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Caltrain and High-Speed Rail Pursue Level Boarding, Compatible Platforms

California High-Speed Rail (foreground) and Caltrain (background, right) will have to share Transbay Center platforms. Image: CAHSR Authority

Correction 10/8: Caltrain and the CAHSRA haven’t agreed to create a joint specification for train cars, but will explore options for platform compatibility.

Officials representing Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently announced that they’ll work closely together over the next several months to explore what options are available from train car manufacturers to allow for level boarding, examine the potential benefits of platform compatibility, and the impacts on the operation of each transit system of doing so.

The cars would allow both systems to board trains from high-level, shared platforms at the future SF Transbay Transit Center, Millbrae, and San Jose stations. The announcement was made last Monday at a meeting hosted by transit advocacy group Friends of Caltrain in Mountain View.

“Level boarding,” so called because passengers will be able to walk directly from platforms onto trains without any steps, maximizes passenger capacity by speeding up boarding. It’s crucial that these three stations have platforms that work for both Caltrain and CAHSR, to maximize flexibility and to reduce redundancy.

Still, many transit advocates remain skeptical that the CAHSRA is sincere about pursuing shared level platforms. The agency issued a Request for Expressions of Interest on October 1 specifying single-level train cars with a floor height of 51 inches above the rails, incompatible with most of the available bi-level electric commuter trains that Caltrain is considering. CAHSR officials insist they have not ruled out alternative platform heights, but say that trains operating at speeds of 220 mph work best with a floor height of around 50 inches.

Average weekday ridership on Caltrain has doubled since 2004 to 59,900 passenger trips in June of this year, fueled by robust employment growth in both San Francisco and throughout Silicon Valley. Rush-hour crowds continue to grow, and up to one-third of passengers are unable to find a seat on the most popular trains and instead pack into aisles and vestibules.

“I’ve heard stories of standees crowding three or four into a bathroom because there are not enough seats on these trains to handle the volumes of customers we have,” stated Caltrain Modernization Project Delivery Director Dave Couch.

Development at San Francisco’s Transbay Center will add thousands of Caltrain passengers every day. Image: Transbay Transit Center

About 20 percent more seats will be available on many rush hour trains by mid-2015, after a $15 million project to lengthen trains from five to six cars, using 16 surplus train cars purchased from LA’s Metrolink.

But Caltrain’s ridership growth shows no signs of letting up, as cities located along the rail line increasingly focus commercial and residential development within walking distance of Caltrain stations along El Camino Real.

“We’re anticipating to take on 200,000 new jobs and another 94,000 units of housing by 2040, primarily along the Caltrain corridor and Market Street,” said Gillian Gillett, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director. “People want to live here, and companies want to stay here and grow here.”

Capacity on an electrified Caltrain could eventually double from today’s levels, to over 9,000 passengers per hour, if eight-car trains were run eight times an hour, according to an analysis conducted by Friends of Caltrain. But running such frequent service requires both level boarding and shared platforms, so that Caltrain could use any of the Transbay Center’s six proposed platforms even after CAHSR service starts in 2029.
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Supes Stand Up to Transbay Developers, Approve Original Rail Funding Deal

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The Board of Supervisors yesterday unanimously approved the original agreement to fund Transbay District transportation upgrades, like the downtown rail extension to the Transbay Transit Center, through development charges. Although supervisors had announced a compromise agreement two weeks ago, some developers apparently backed out of it. City Hall officials decided to move forward with the original agreement, since those developers threatened to file a lawsuit either way.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The disagreement arose after Transbay developers began to fight the establishment of a special property tax, called a Mello-Roos tax district, which they had agreed to in 2012 to help fund local infrastructure projects, like the extension of Caltrain and California high-speed rail to the Transbay Center. The developers, who still must approve the Mello-Roos agreement in a vote, hired former Mayor Willie Brown to lobby for a lower tax rate, since property values (and thus projected taxes) have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Kudos to the Supervisors for supporting the original Mello-Roos agreement, rather than delaying the vote again or agreeing to further concessions,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich. “Any project of this size is going to be subject to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. Shame on these developers for seeking to reap all the benefits of the Transbay project, their beneficial re-zoning, and San Francisco’s booming land values, without any portion of this enormous windfall going towards the public good.”

Under the compromise agreement announced two weeks ago, the developers would have paid the same maximum of $1.4 billion in taxes, but spread over 37 years instead of 30. Supervisor Scott Wiener said this would have retained “every penny” of the original deal, but some said the economics would’ve worked out in the developers’ favor. The SF Chronicle penned an editorial on Sunday blasting the “unwarranted tax break to developers” and “huge giveaway”:

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Developers Don’t Want to Pay for Caltrain/HSR Extension to Transbay Center

Developers who are building towers around the Transbay Transit Center in SoMa are fighting to reduce a special property tax that will be levied on developments in the area. The biggest loser could be the downtown rail extension to bring Caltrain and California high-speed rail into the terminal, as more of the funds for the regional rail hub and other long-term projects would have to come from taxpayers.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The group of developers is backed by former mayor Willie Brown, who registered as an official lobbyist to work for them in July (he also recently lobbied “pro bono” for AnsoldoBreda, the manufacturer of Muni’s current train fleet). Brown previously helped create the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to oversee the massive package of projects centered around what’s been called the “Grand Central of the West,” expected to open in 2017.

SF Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported in July:

Brown confirmed for us that he is representing Boston Properties — builder of the 61-story Salesforce Tower — and more than a half dozen other property owners.

In exchange for the city allowing them to increase the height and density of their projects, the property owners agreed two years ago to be assessed up to $400 million to help pay for a Transbay Transit Center rooftop park and other public improvements to the area.

Only now, thanks to skyrocketing property values and changes in the city’s methodology for calculating the assessments, the developers — paying into what’s known as a Mello-Roos special district — could face up to $1.4 billion in charges.

The Board of Supervisors was expected to approve the agreement creating the Mello-Roos district on Tuesday, but D6 Supervisor Jane Kim postponed the item one week. “We wanted additional time to be able to brief all of the offices on this issue, but also talk to the multiple parties involved,” Kim said at the meeting.

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Caltrain Raises Fares for Go Pass, Paper Tickets

Caltrain’s Board of Directors approved a set of fare increases last week that will raise up to $598,000 in farebox revenue. Caltrain will hike prices for its annual unlimited-ride Go Pass, paper one-way tickets and day passes, and special-event parking fees. Farebox revenues are projected to total $75 million in 2015, paying 60 percent of Caltrain’s $126 million operating budget.

Most of the new revenue will be raised by a 15 percent increase in fees for Caltrain’s Go Pass program, which currently provides discounted annual passes to 81 participating employers. Employers currently pay $165 per year per full-time employee (or a flat fee of $13,750, whichever is greater) to receive unlimited Caltrain rides for all of their employees for one year. This annual fee will rise to $180 per employee (or at least $15,120) on October 5, 2014, and then to $190 per employee (or at least $15,960) “beginning in 2016″.

This pricing structure makes the Go Pass program cost-effective only for larger employers, who can provide free Caltrain passes as a valuable employee perk. Introduced in 2003, the Go Pass program has generated a reliable and growing ridership base and increasing farebox revenue for Caltrain, with over 40,000 workers now eligible for the free passes. But as Go Pass expands, revenue per passenger trip declines, because the passes are sold at a deep discount compared to regular monthly passes — a growing concern as peak hour trains become increasingly crowded.

The higher Go Pass fees will generate an additional $600,000 for Caltrain in 2015 and $1 million in 2016, assuming that the number of total eligible employees remains stable. Even at the $190 per employee annual fee that Caltrain will charge in 2016, Go Passes are far cheaper than the private shuttles operated by some large Silicon Valley companies.

“Evidence suggests that employers would stay [in the Go Pass program],” wrote Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin last year, citing data from the Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) corresponding EcoPass.

But Caltrain is still probably leaving millions on the table, since even employers with high participation rates get a huge discount per employee compared to regular adult monthly fares. The largest participant in the Go Pass program, Stanford University, has seen the share of its faculty and administrative staff using Caltrain jump from just four percent in 2002 to 24 percent in 2013. With about 13,000 faculty and staff, Stanford now pays $2.2 million annually for Go Passes, or $700 per employee who actually take the train to work. Without this discount, the university would pay twice as much for two-zone monthly passes for its employees who use Caltrain, and three times as much for three-zone monthly passes.

In an effort to “incentivize use of the Clipper fare payment system”, Caltrain is also raising fares on paper one-way tickets and day passes. Passengers purchasing one-way paper tickets already pay a 25-cent premium over the fare paid with a Clipper transit card; that premium will rise to 50 cents. Prices for paper ticket day passes, currently sold for the equivalent of two one-way trips, will rise 50 cents. The fare changes will take effect on October 5.

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