Elated and electrified, dozens of dignitaries from California to Washington, D.C., gathered in celebration of a critical juncture for Caltrain — ground has been broken on the long-awaited modernization of the 150-year-old rail corridor.
Gov. Jerry Brown, federal representatives, state legislators, county supervisors, mayors, transportation executives and business leaders gathered at the Millbrae Caltrain station platform Friday to gear up for the tri-county transit agency’s $2 billion electrification project.
Caltrain advocates commemorated the start of construction on a project that’s been hailed as critical to the region’s progress.
“It’s about clean air, it’s about efficiency, speed and it’s about not sitting on the freeway for a couple hours bumper to bumper. California has 32 million vehicles, we use 18 billion gallons of gasoline diesel, and we collectively drive 335 billion miles a year. How many more can we add to that?” Brown asked the jovial crowd. “A country is great when it can come together and build for the future. That’s what we’re doing right here on the Peninsula.”
A strong proponent of fighting climate change, Brown was hailed for extending cap-and-trade laws as well as the Legislature’s recent transportation funding overhaul. But Friday’s attendees remained adamant more is needed to solidify Caltrain’s financial future as it remains one of the few transit agencies without a dedicated funding source.
Formally known as the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project, intense lobbying efforts helped pull the modernization program from the brink after California Republicans sought to tank a $647 million federal grant earlier this year. Opponents cited concerns about its connection to the state’s controversial high-speed rail project, slated to share the Peninsula tracks through a codified “blended system.” But after a lot of D.C. handshaking and Democrats fighting to keep electrification on track, the Federal Transit Administration finally gave the project a green light in May.
Now, a flurry of construction is ramping up as the decades-in-the-making project will electrify 51 miles of track between San Francisco and San Jose. By early 2021, 75 percent of Caltrain’s diesel locomotives will be replaced with faster electric trains capable of transporting more passengers through the backbone of Silicon Valley.
“This groundbreaking is a reality because there was an extraordinary regional effort by San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. And I would say to anyone, when this region really comes together as one, watch out. Not even a diesel train can stop us,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo. “New York City has its subway that moves the money changers, we have Caltrain that moves future changers and that’s what this is all about, this is all about the future.”
But celebrating progress also marked an opportunity to commemorate the history of the more than 150-year-old rail line that dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s tenure in the White House.
“This is the beginning of something special,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. “From the industrial revolution to the digital revolution, this project is a positive indication of that resolve to improve our communities as we face the challenges of our future. We must always maintain an appreciation of what we can do, what Caltrain can do, what we can do together when we work together.”
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, an ardent supporter who had chastised the Trump administration for delaying the grant, was thrilled to mark the day as deeply gratifying.
“We’re celebrating having made history,” said Eshoo, D-Palo Alto. “I think there’s something else we’re celebrating today too, and that is the American spirit. We have a tradition that we do something noble and good during our time and pass that achievement on to future generations. That’s what you have all done.”
By 2040, improvements to the system are expected to reduce 176,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually as well as slash 619,000 vehicle miles through the faster and quieter electric trains running more frequently. The project has also been touted as a means to addressing regional traffic congestion by expanding capacity from its current 65,000 weekday riders to 110,000 passengers. The benefits will extend beyond the Bay Area with 9,600 jobs created across the country, according to Caltrain.
“It’s about economic vitality, it’s about jobs, jobs, job creation. To build and to get people to and from work, sustainability in terms of taking cars off the road, it’s about convenience and quality of life,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. “Whether it’s about families getting together, people going to work, products getting to market, we all pin our hopes on public mass transit.”
Bay Area business leaders who’ve championed the project are looking to steer additional funding toward transportation solutions and spoke Friday to highlight the value of such transit systems. Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, remarked on how the work is not over as noted additional money is needed to replace all of Caltrain’s crowded diesel cars with electric locomotives.
“That can be transformative to a transportation corridor that desperately needs more people out of their own cars and onto Caltrain cars,” Guardino said, adding “this corridor is home to 1.6 million jobs, it’s home to 20 percent of the sales tax generation in the entire Golden State, 53 percent of all California’s patents, and 13 percent of California’s gross domestic product. So let’s celebrate today assuredly, but let’s step forward tomorrow for the next step in the future of this corridor.”
Future revenue measures
But it won’t just be Caltrain riders who are asked to take a leap. Transportation advocates are strategizing on how to finance billions of dollars in local as well as regional projects from bridges to buses. Currently, two bills are winding their way through the Legislature that could ask voters for tax increase to generate revenue that would support Caltrain.
Hill is carrying a bill that would allow San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to ask voters for an eighth-cent sales tax increase dedicated specifically to Caltrain. Another option is legislation by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, to enable the San Mateo County Transit District and Board of Supervisors to ask locals for a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transportation.
Whichever option is chosen, it will likely take place in 2018 when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will be pushing Regional Measure 3 — a bridge toll hike of up to $3 that voters in the Bay Area’s nine counties will consider. The funding efforts come shortly after Sacramento Democrats overhauled how the state finances transportation projects with increases to the gas tax and car registration fees as well as an annual electric vehicle surcharge.
Mullin, who emceed Friday’s gathering, said getting cars off the jam-packed highways will have lasting effects on a region that’s grown into a global innovation hub.
Today “marks a long-awaited milestone for a future when a modernized Caltrain connects our community to a state-of-the-art transit service that reduces travel time, increases capacity and helps relieve congestion on one of the nation’s most important transportation corridors,” Mullin said. “Electrification builds the foundation for the future.”
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