The bridge across the bay

Last week, I went to the Menlo Park city council meeting that covered Caltrain’s plan to extend commuter rail across the San Francisco Bay. Trips to the East Bay represent the largest share of miles that I drive. I probably go to SF more often, but take Caltrain a decent share of the time. I never take public transit to the east bay, because of the “you can’t get there from here” factor. It’s physically possible to do it, but it takes about twice as long, so someone who has another option wouldn’t do it. A good proportion of Bay Area Socialtexters who have convenient access to public transit get to work by train or bus, or bike, and we have a couple of employees who live in the east bay who might take public transit if it was more convenient. So a train across the bay sounded like a pretty good idea to me.
The council meeting was educational. Dozens of people came out from the neighborhood that would be affected by the train, who were either concerned or adamantly opposed. They didn’t want a train through their backyards; and funding for features like grade crossings and sound barriers weren’t clearly available. People were seriously worried that the plan was a stalking horse for freight rail. Apparently, Southern Pacific has the legal right to take freight trains across the bay if the tracks are upgraded to handle freight. For people who live near the tracks, a freight trains running all night long would be horrid. The projections of commuter ridership didn’t do a lot to dispel the fear that commuting wasn’t the main purpose of the program.
The ridership estimates were low — only about 6,000 passengers per day, about 10% of the car traffic across the bridge. The Caltrain did not seem to have end-user benefits as clear priorities, with only six rides per day. Options to cut costs in various ways would cut connectivity as the first resort to cutting costs, dumping passengers in Newark, without a train connection. It was not clear why the ridership estimates were so low; perhaps because the proposed service is not very convenient.
Some city council members and community members are pushing for a bus rapid transit option instead of the train. This could be more convenient, cheaper, and less noisy. I got up and spoke in the interest of people who would benefit from better cross-bay commuting, even though it was scary to speak amid the parade of people arguing vehemently against the route.
The meeting was an excellent education on the the difficult dynamics of regional transit in the bay area. The transit agency representatives sounded more interested in upgrading their trains than serving commuters, or making sure that people who lived by the tracks would still have livable neighborhoods. The room was full of people who didn’t want a train in their back yard; and there was only one speaker (me) providing personal testimony about benefits.
Given the risks to the oil supply and global warming, I think we are going to very badly need improved regional transit. Right now, organizational dynamics make it harder to do.
p.s. As far as I could tell, the Almanac and the Palo Alto Daily didn’t cover the session. There is no local media to be found.

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