Sunday, May 22, 2016

Green Caltrain: This week: HSR environmental scoping meetings – what questions should be asked?


This week, the High Speed Rail High Speed Authority is hosting scoping meetings for the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the San Francisco-San Jose segment of the blended system, where High Speed Rail and Caltrain will share tracks between San Jose and San Francisco.  Now is the time to ask questions that the High Speed Rail Authority will need to answer in the Environmental Impact Report.   (Scroll down for meeting times and dates).
Here are some topics that are going to be covered in the environmental impact report, and some draft thoughts about questions to ask.  Your suggestions are welcome – what do you think should be asked to disclose the impacts and benefits of the blended system?
Passing tracks. The physical design and operational choices to allow long-distance express HSR trains to pass Caltrain trains will make a big difference in the schedule quality of Caltrain service.  The analysis should show schedule scenarios for High Speed and Caltrain trains for the various options. Options should include using stations for passing, in addition to passing tracks (note: High Speed Rail representative Ben Tripousis mentioned recently in public that passing stations were being considered).
Downtown Extension. The Notice of Preparation (NOP; a formal document announcing the comment period) says that the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to the Transbay terminal will be addressed in the SF-SJ project section EIR (this EIR).  Therefore, the EIR should included updated ridership forecast data and vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions impact/benefit data.
San Jose approach to Diridon.    The High Speed Rail Authority is splitting its coverage of San Jose into two segments – Diridon to San Francisco, covered in SF-SJ, and south of Diridon, covered in SJ to Merced.  Unfortunately, HSRA is proposing to make a major change to its approach to Diridon – coming in at grade instead of in an elevated alignment, with a 3rd track for freight – without doing any additional environmental analysis. The at-grade option could cut off one of two entrances to the affected neighborhood; and would impact a low-income neighborhood already cut off and experiencing pollution from the 280 and 87 freeways. The impact on the low-income neighborhood needs to be studied for environmental justice consequences.  (The alternatives – an elevated alignment or below-grade tunnel or trench – would have different impacts)   Since SF-SJ is having an EIR update, the approach to Diridon should be included in this segment rather than to omit environmental analysis for this major proposed change.
Grade separations. The NOP states that the project will include “potential grade separations necessary to support blended operations”.     Historically, CEQA required analysis of “level of service” – vehicle delay at intersections – to measure impact. But as of late this year or early next, California Environmental Quality Act rules will be changing and LOS will go away as an environmental impact that needs to be studied under CEQA.  There will be a 2-year optional phase-in, so HSR could choose to analyze under the old rules, but CEQA analysis “times out”, and grade separations will be implemented over time, so it would be better to have policy criteria that can be used when LOS goes away as a CEQA requirement.
Regardless, we definitely want a policy goal to maintain reasonable cross-town connectivity for people walking, bicycling, taking transit, and driving.     How to articulate the policy criteria for the grade separations needed?
Speed. The NOP says that HSR trains will travel at 110 MPH. Should comments ask for schedule and ridership options to be studied including 110 MPH for Caltrain?
Maintenance facility.  The NOP does not say where the options are for maintenance facilities, so there is no opportunity to make specific comments.
How would you refine these questions? What other questions would you ask?
More on the proposed scope of the EIR can be found in High Speed Rail’s Notice of Preparation Letter, here.
Scoping meetings
The scoping meetings will be held between 5 and 8pm with the dates and locations below. The formal presentation will start at 6pm.
San Francisco
Monday, May 23, 2016
UCSF Mission Bay
1500 Owens St.
San Francisco, CA 95158
San Mateo
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
San Mateo Marriott
1770 S. Amphlett Blvd.
San Mateo, CA 94402
Mountain View
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
SFV Lodge
361 Villa St.
Mountain View, CA 94041
Note:  One of the challenges with combining a planning process – how do we want the blended system to work as well as possible – with a CEQA process – is that the California Environmental Quality Act is designed to disclose impacts rather than to analyze potential benefits.  So some of the important planning questions might not technically be required under CEQA, but we need them for good planning.


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