Up or down? Officials discuss the future of Caltrain corridor

Big changes are barreling down the Caltrain corridor, and officials in some Peninsula cities are thinking ahead so those changes can be spun into downtown improvements — rather than slicing cities in half.

Caltrain Director Robert Doty, heavily influenced by the train systems of Europe and Asia, is pushing for Caltrain to become more state-of-the-art, with high-speed rail and a plan to electrify the corridor by 2012, according to Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg.

Under a new master plan adopted this month, Caltrain is on track to become an electrified rapid-transit system, similar to BART and European metro services, by 2025. A funding plan has not yet been identified, though the $471 million electrification plan will be paid for in part through Measure A funds.

Although electric-based rapid transit could run on the existing tracks, high-speed rail requires a height separation between the rail corridor and cross traffic — and may demand the addition of more tracks, according to Redwood City Community Development Director Peter Ingram. Cities such as Redwood City, which has a Caltrain station in the heart of downtown, are beginning to envision how those advancements will alter their urban centers.

“This can be handled as an opportunity rather than an obstacle,” said Redwood City Councilmember Jim Hartnett, who is also a member of the Caltrain board of directors, in a workshop Aug. 7.

Redwood City’s downtown has always been bisected by the rail corridor, even after a grade separation was built at Jefferson Avenue, according to Community Development Director Peter Ingram. During last week’s workshop, most City Councilmembers agreed that the tracks should be raised — or buried underground — to better integrate the area with its train station.

Similar conversations have begun in Burlingame, which has one functioning downtown train station and no grade separations. “We are aware that it could become a wall that cuts our city in two,” said Vice Mayor Terry Nagel.

While cities need to think about how to create new station and rail designs, they also need to approach the changes on a more regional level. “What we do at our stations affects the stations on either side,” she said. “If you go up, the next one probably has to goup, too.”

Many Peninsula cities have contemplated putting the rail corridor underground, though the expense — coupled with the need to move freight along the tracks — may make that impossible, according to Nagel and Redwood City Councilman Jeff Ira.

But not all cities see it that way.

San Mateo’s corridor plan, developed more than a decade ago, stipulates that “the tracks should be moved below grade, if they are moved at all,” according to Public Works Director Larry Patterson.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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