TAMC plans for Caltrain commuter service, but has the train already left the station?
Thursday, January 18, 2007
In 2010, the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) sees 530,000 commuters from the county hopping on trains and arriving in cities like San Jose and San Francisco. The agency plans to extend a Caltrain service that now ends in Gilroy to stops in Salinas, Castroville and Pajaro.
Yet Caltrain, the agency that is supposed to provide this service, is at odds with the proposal. Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg provides a laundry list of unachieved requirements for the project.
“We don’t have the equipment to provide additional service. We would need additional trains,” he says. “We don’t have track rights south of Gilroy.”
And, he adds, “The tracks south of Gilroy really aren’t in good shape.”
Before Caltrain will even come to the table, Weinberg says, TAMC would at least have to gain rights to the track from Union Pacific Railroad.
TAMC has a battle ahead in convincing key players to go along with its plans to bring commuter train service to the county. The agency doesn’t have the railroad tracks, the property, the trains or all the money. To further complicate things, these components must be secured from different entities.
Salinas to downtown San Francisco would take about three hours.
A spokesman for Union Pacific says the company is open to renting the track to TAMC but the capacity of the track has to be studied. Freight trains frequent the railroad track, which also has a daily stopover for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line that connects Los Angeles to Seattle. “We have to ensure that the capacity is there to operate these new trains and that the commuter trains operate in a timely manner,” says Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific.
TAMC Senior Transportation Planner Christina Watson says there shouldn’t be any conflict with freight trains because Union Pacific has left the Caltrain time slot open down to Gilroy. She says since the Gilroy trains have enough room to accommodate Monterey County passengers now, it remains to be seen whether TAMC would have to buy or rent trains. She adds that the $90 million budget for the project includes upgrades to the track.
All of these loose ends will be tied up, TAMC officials say, over the course of negotiations with Caltrain and Union Pacific. But they don’t have a lot of time left to talk. TAMC projects the extended train service to begin in three years.
TAMC officials say they’ve been waiting on an environmental impact report (EIR), which they needed in order to begin serious discussion with Caltrain and Union Pacific. In September the state certified an EIR for the project and its related revamping of the Salinas Amtrak Station into a transportation hub with bus and train service. Next month, TAMC will ask the Salinas City Council to endorse a design for the so-called “Intermodal Transportation Center,” which will include a new layover facility for Caltrain.
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In 2000, about 18,000 people in Monterey County commuted outside the county for work. Of that number, 5,800 commuted to Santa Clara County. With the Bay Area’s high housing costs, the number of commuters is only expected to grow.
The proposed train service would start with two round trips a day, cutting down on traffic on congested Highways 156 and 101. Under current fares, a one-way train ride from Salinas to San Jose would cost $6.75. If a commuter purchased a monthly pass the same two-hour trip would cost $4.50.
Riding to downtown San Francisco would take about three hours. Compared to a car travel time is longer, but commuters could read, sleep and work instead of driving—not to mention avoid the hassle of finding parking.
But even if the tracks and funding fell into place today, trains could not make the trek from Monterey County to San Francisco just yet. There’s a family-owned hospitality and janitorial supply company sitting in the way.
American Supply Co.’s property is right where TAMC wants to put a layover facility for the intermodal transportation center. Attorney Brian Finegan, who represents the Molinari family, says the company has been at 130 West Market St. for more than 50 years and doesn’t want to move. Finegan says the extension of commuter rail service is a good thing but it shouldn’t be at the expense of a longtime Salinas company.
“[The proposal] takes this business out of business and forces it to be relocated someplace unidentified,” Finegan told the Salinas City Council at its Jan. 9 meeting. He said the business is open to relocation but moving a regional supply company takes time and TAMC hasn’t talked to the Molinari family in the last two years. “Relocating American Supply is not like packing your suitcase to go to Vegas for the weekend,” Finegan said.
In response, TAMC Executive Director Debbie Hale told the City Council that American Supply does have options. She said the company could stay if it gave up 20 feet of property that it built on in 2003. Hale said the Molinari family went ahead with expansion fully knowing that the land would be needed for the transportation center.
Finegan argued that in 2003, TAMC didn’t have much funding for its planned expansion. The Molinari family needed to expand their business, he said, and at the time, there was no guarantee that the transportation center would actually be built.
But now the funding landscape for the project has brightened. TAMC secured $20 million from the state’s congestion relief program, bringing the funds to about $30 million. The agency also hopes to get a huge grant from Federal Transit Administration.
Over the next two months, TAMC will make its pitch for about $40 million in federal funding from the New Starts program. TAMC is counting on this money to start construction, but it remains to be seen whether the agency will be awarded the grant.
Operating the commuter train may also depend on residents approving a transportation sales tax in 2008, Watson says. A similar tax, Measure A, failed last June.
Meanwhile, TAMC is studying whether to pursue a light rail or bus transit line that would start in Monterey and link up to the proposed Caltrain extension in Castroville.
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||5,000||
Pounds of produce that would have otherwise been plowed underground that local tri-county volunteers from Ag Against Hunger’s gleaning program collected and donated in 2006. Source: Ag Against Hunger.