Almanac

News - April 30, 2014

Menlo Park debates Caltrain electrification

by Sandy Brundage

About 20 people attended a meeting in Menlo Park on April 24 to chime in on the draft environmental impact report for Caltrain's electrification project, voicing comments both in favor of and against the project.

With a budget estimated at $1.5 billion, the switch to electrified trains running from San Francisco to San Jose could bring environmental as well as financial benefits for the transit agency and surrounding communities, according to Caltrain.

However, the project's goal of sharing tracks with high-speed rail worries some residents that electrification will provide a piecemeal way for HSR to circumvent further scrutiny, and that the combined impacts of both projects won't be considered.

A council subcommittee, composed of Rich Cline and Kirsten Keith, is charged with finalizing Menlo Park's comments on the draft impact report.

While proponents anticipate the possible benefits of electrification, including less air pollution and expanded service, community members also debate the drawbacks, particularly with regard to the projected loss of thousands of trees and creation of traffic delays near the tracks.

At the meeting on Thursday (April 24), speakers raised additional points to make in the city's comment letter, according to Menlo Park Senior Transportation Engineer Nicole Nagaya. While acknowledging the positive environmental impacts electrification could have on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, the speakers said Menlo Park should ask Caltrain to:

• Consider improving the efficiency of its diesel trains instead of electrifying its tracks.

• Look at other options for electricity, such as running a third rail as BART does instead of installing overhead power lines.

• Evaluate other power companies besides PG&E as potential suppliers.

• Improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure at train stations.

• Examine grade separations as part of the project.

Councilman Cline noted some community concern that issues raised regarding the environmental impact analysis could lead to a lawsuit down the road.

Atherton recently approved a comment letter that broached some of the same issues surfacing in Menlo Park, such as not considering design alternatives and not analyzing HSR alongside electrification, which could be "grounds for litigation."

At least one person hopes a lawsuit doesn't materialize. "Electrification provides strong benefits to Menlo Park and the Peninsula, and as a resident I would not want to see our city challenge and seek to halt or delay this beneficial project," said Adina Levin.

Others hope electrification doesn't materialize.

Jack Ringham, who serves on Atherton's rail committee, presented a detailed report at the April 24 meeting that made an argument for optimizing diesel engines as a better choice than electrification. Caltrain's draft impact report says that electric trains can be quieter, emit less air pollution and increase the trip frequency, while diesel alternatives, in addition to being incompatible with high-speed rail, would not decrease trip times or operating expenses, and therefore discourage the type of service expansion that could increase ridership.

Citing low ridership on the current trains and the loss of aesthetic environments that can accompany transit upgrades, Menlo Park resident Eileen Lehman told the city in an email that there "is no demand for better public transportation that justifies destroying a middle class (for Menlo Park) neighborhood of young working couples, couples with small children, single people and a few retired people. The area between Ravenswood and Glenwood is where a lot of people get introduced to Menlo Park. Keep it nice. And of course, I cannot attend the meeting, because like most people in my neighborhood, I have to work, and can't make a meeting at 6 p.m."

The public comment period for the draft environmental impact report ended April 29. Ms. Nagaya said the final version of Menlo Park's letter will be posted on the city's website (http://tinyurl.com/n6chpc3).

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