San Jose-to-Gilroy electrification delayed

To push its stalled electrification plan forward and save millions in capital costs, Caltrain will delay electrification from San Jose to Gilroy indefinitely, officials announced Thursday.

The move, along with other more minor changes to the plan, would save the commuter train agency about $131 million and put riders aboard electric trains by 2014, four years later than originally projected, officials said. Caltrain estimates that electrification will now cost about $471 million.

Electrification from San Francisco to Gilroy was first identified as a top priority in April 1999.

“Certainly some of us are frustrated with how long it has taken,” said Margaret Okuzumi, executive director of the BayRail Alliance.
Supervisor Jerry Hill, who sits on the Caltrain board, said electrification had become lost among other transportation projects, such as BART to the airport and Millbrae, and high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With high-speed rail now struggling for support from state lawmakers and the hope of getting funds for electrification from that project dashed for the moment, Hill said it is time for Caltrain and its local partners to move forward on their own.

Cutting out electrification to Gilroy could be the key to getting the electrification started and completed sooner, rather than later, Hill said.

Electrification would shorten the ride from San Francisco to San Jose by about 10 minutes, decrease diesel pollution along the tracks and offer a smoother, quieter ride, Hill said. Electrification could also encourage HSR to take a Peninsula route, instead of going through Oakland, and make it possible for Caltrain to connect underground to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, Hill said.

San Francisco officials are currently debating whether to include Caltrain — which would have to run underground through The City beginning at around 16th Street — in the first phase of the Transbay Terminal construction.

Santa Clara Valley Supervisor Don Gage, also a Caltrain board member, supported the plan to cut electrification to Gilroy. His top priorities are adding a second set of tracks to improve train frequency and increasing ridership along the Gilroy extension, Gage said. The Gilroy extension has experienced a 25 percent loss in ridership from 2001, according to Caltrain Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey.

“I’ve told my constituents that if they want better service, they have to ride,” Gage said.

A portion of the 22 percent reduction in costs will come from Metropolitan Transportation Commission paying to replace 23 diesel engines with electric engines at a cost of between $70 million to $140 million, Caltrain Chief Development Officer Ian McAvoy said.
The biggest uncertainty is funding, which Caltrain hopes to have lined up by 2009, officials said. While San Mateo County and San Francisco have both earmarked sales tax funds for their portion of the project, Santa Clara Valley officials are only now working to establish their funding priorities for their sales tax, Valley Transit Authority spokeswoman Jayme Kunz said.

Each of the agencies plans to shoulder approximately one-third of the costs, officials said.

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