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Is the Caltrain Downtown Extension in Jeopardy too?

A rendering of the Transbay terminal with Caltrain and HSR. Image: Transbay Authority

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story that made it appear that San Francisco County Transportation Authority  (CTA) Chairman Aaron Peskin wants to shelve the downtown extension of Caltrain, now that the Trump Administration seems to have jammed up funding for Caltrain electrification.

From the Chronicle story:

...without an electrified Caltrain line, there can be no high-speed trains into downtown San Francisco. “Why are we spending money to design something that may never be built at all?” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin... Some officials hold out hope that President Trump will eventually release the $647 million in electrification funding for Caltrain, but that’s hardly a sure thing. Peskin figured it was time to hold off, at least until the authority hears more next month from city transportation planners. So on Friday, the authority sent word that the city’s money, like the federal contribution, will stay on ice.

Fortunately, initial reactions are that the Chron's story is misleading. Apparently, Peskin asked for the delay so that the CTA board could hear a presentation about the Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Boulevard Feasibility Study (RAB), which is directly related, before approving $6.7 million in city funding for preliminary engineering work on the DTX.

"He's... having a parallel conversation with folks about delaying the vote so we could talk about the DTX alignment," said Sunny Angulo, legislative aide to Peskin, in a phone interview with Streetsblog. "What we've been telling stakeholders is we want to push the vote to March, so we could talk to Caltrain, the rail yard study people, and discuss alignments.... The quote [in the Chron] is out of context."

The Chron piece may, indeed, be conflating innocent scheduling issues with the Caltrain electrification funding problem. Either way, DTX, as Streetsblog's past editorials argue, has been pushed back for too long.

From Streetsblog's perspective, the DTX must move forward, even if Caltrain electrification falls through in this round thanks to the Trump Administration. Yes, Caltrain's current locomotive-hauled diesel trains emit fumes, which are a big problem in a long tunnel and underground station. But Caltrain electrification is going to happen eventually. Given the long timeline of these projects, it would be better to proceed with DTX and find stop-gap service options, if necessary.

San Francisco will have to electrify the Transbay Terminal train station and the DTX itself regardless. So if DTX ends up finished before Caltrain electrifies, San Francisco can, at the very least, run an electric train shuttle between Transbay and 4th and King. Or Caltrain can use dual-mode locomotives (which can run on diesel or electrification) to run Caltrain trains directly into Transbay without electrifying its mainline--New York City has used dual-mode commuter trains for over seventy years to bring diesel-powered trains into Grand Central and Penn Station. Either way, it would make no sense to use problems with Caltrain electrification as a reason to jam up the DTX project.

"DTX is an absolutely critical project. It wouldn't just connect the Peninsula and South Bay to downtown S.F., it would allow transit riders to access the whole region via transfers at the Transbay Terminal," said Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm.  "We should be moving ahead."

The CTA Board will hear more about DTX at its regular meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 11:00 AM in the Legislative Chamber (Room 250), City Hall.

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