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Attendees of the railroad network forum look at a small-scale 3-D map of Oakland.

Transit experts gather to discuss expansion of Bay Area rail network

on October 4, 2016

A panel of transit experts convened in Oakland last week to raise public support for its proposal to expand and upgrade the Bay Area’s rail network.

Representatives from the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates the region’s passenger system, the Port of Oakland and an engineering firm gathered at an Oakland nonprofit to present the Capital Corridor’s hopes of building their own tracks for the San Jose to East Bay to Sacramento Amtrak route. The service, which has been operating since the early 1990s, currently runs on tracks owned by freight giant Union Pacific Railroad. Proprietary tracks would accommodate more trains as the route’s popularity grows and would allow for a change to a cleaner and faster electric system from the current diesel-run system.

With a port that serves as a gateway for the state’s vast agriculture industry and an endpoint for the transcontinental railroad, Oakland plays a large role in international freight transport. Its surrounding railroad tracks are also increasingly being used for passenger transit, creating a squeeze, said Jim Allison, a panelist with Capitol Corridor.

“Oakland is key to unlocking this vision,” Allison said.

The panelists said in their presentation that the new train line they would like to build would run from San Jose through the East Bay and then east to Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The plan will come up for a vote on November 16 before the Capitol Corridor board, which is made up of representatives from numerous local transit agencies.

The plan comes as part of a broad shift towards electricity in the transportation industry and the Bay Area’s recent efforts to reduce reliance on personal auto use amid congestion and climate change concerns.

A key part of the proposal involves electrifying the tracks. Capital Corridor is currently unable to do that because Union Pacific Railroads owns the tracks’ right of way, and the company has little incentive to electrify a small part of its national freight network that is otherwise powered by diesel, Allison said.

He added that early phases of the project would entail splitting the tracks between Oakland and San Jose, so they can handle more than twice the number of passenger trains running the route per day—going from seven to 15.

“There’s the potential to run quite a lot more trains,” Allison said.

He said it was important to create separate tracks so more trains could accommodate an anticipated increase in passengers. According to Capitol Corridor’s 2015 performance report, ridership has increased by 12 percent to 1.48 million trips per year since 2009.

One of the biggest challenges the plan will face is cost.

“It doesn’t have a capital ‘B’ in front of it, but it’s close,” said Wayne Short of engineering firm HDR Inc., alluding to the estimated budget for Oakland alone.

Allison said in an interview that executing the entire plan, which could involve construction of numerous bridges and tunnels, would likely cost tens of billions of dollars. One option for the Oakland segment calls for building a 3.5-mile tunnel under downtown, according to Capitol Corridor’s final vision plan report.

“We don’t have the money to move ahead,” he said. “We’ll have to invent the funding source,” Allison said.

Allison added that public funds could potentially come from a voter-approved bond measure. A bond measure is currently helping to fund the state’s estimated $64 billion high-speed rail project. Part of the Capital Corridor system plan includes connecting to that system in San Jose.

At the meeting, the transit experts discussed how electrifying the system was necessary in order to link with the high-speed rail system.

Shirley Qian, a planner for Capitol Corridor, noted another hurdle facing the plan: acquiring right of way rights from Union Pacific, which owns the land where Capitol Corridor would like to build tracks.

If approved in November, Allison said focus would shift towards securing funding.

“Right now it’s just an engineering concept,” Allison said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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