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Caltrain Hits Barrier of Litigation on Tracks to Electrification

The Surface Transportation Board's denial of Caltrain's request to provide an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act gives the go ahead to the Town of Atherton's lawsuit requesting the rail board redo its Environmental Impact Report.
July 8, 2015, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Caltrain, the seventh busiest commuter rail line in the United States and the oldest continuously operated railroad west of the Mississippi River, is engaged in a $1.5 billion modernization program that will electrify the tracks on the Peninsula between San Jose and San Francisco by 2020. It had the highest rate of ridership increase of any Bay Area transit system last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association*, that has led to crowding on peak hour trains.

"Although it completed an environmental impact report (EIR), Caltrain officials have long claimed their plans for electrification should be exempt from state laws requiring such review and sought confirmation from the Surface Transportation Board — a federal agency that oversees interstate commerce routes," writes Samantha Weigel of The Daily Journal. 

But the STB ruled (July 2) that it did not have jurisdiction over the local agency’s project as electrification is specifically geared toward commuter service, not the freight service that shares the Caltrain tracks. Now unable to claim exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Caltrain must continue to litigate against opponents such as the city [sic] of Atherton that filed a lawsuit claiming the agency’s environmental impact report was incomplete." 

Joining Atherton in their litigation against Caltrain in February was the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund or TRANSDEF, "a non-profit environmental organization created by transit activists to advocate for better solutions to transportation..." and the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, "dedicated to preventing the California High Speed Rail Project from devastating our communities and State finances."

The suit asks the court to order the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which runs Caltrain, to revise its environmental impact report that was finalized and certified in January. The groups allege Caltrain’s environmental review is inadequate, as it does not consider the potential impacts high-speed rail would bring to the Peninsula.

Both Caltrain and High-Speed Rail will run in the same corridor and on the same tracks, referred to as blended rail.

Long-time Planetizen readers may recall that Atherton and neighbor Menlo Park were the first of many\ to sue the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 2009also using CEQA against the EIR. Initially successful, CHRA may have prevailed (see "related" below for chronology of Atherton's lawsuits against the rail authority) although I'm not sure if the cities have any appeals in the works.

How this latest lawsuit will affect the timeline and finances of Caltrain's program is not known at this time, and calling it a barrier may be an exaggeration. 

We have a certified EIR document which includes mitigation to which we remain committed to fulfilling,” Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann  said. “We will defend ourselves in the litigation ... because we feel we have a complete and fully compliant environmental document and we believe we’ll be successful in the outcome of that.”

In related electrification news, the board reached an agreement with "the building trades councils of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Benito counties, as well as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 1245" to perform the electrification work, according to Progressive Railroading.

*Endnote: Per APTA's "Fourth Quarter & End-of-Year 2014 Ridership report" [pdf], Caltrain's ridership increase was 10.11 percent. Next highest was BART at 6.07 percent.

Hat tip to Mike Ferreira.

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