04 March 2014

CalMod Gains Momentum

CalMod is the corny abbreviation for the Caltrain Modernization program, which encompasses the CBOSS train control system and the peninsula corridor electrification project (PCEP, if you really want to sound like you're in the know).  CalMod is kicking into high gear this week, with the following major developments:
  • Release of the revised DEIR, a major step to clear the electrification project under CEQA.  Compared to the last edition of this document from 2009 (itself warmed over from 2004 and used to garner FTA approval of the project under NEPA), this update is a much stronger and more thorough document that clearly reflects the higher degree of public awareness of the project.  The JPB plans to certify the final EIR this fall.
  • At the next board meeting, award of a six-year $4.3 million contract to the new Director of Project Delivery, Dave Couch.  This is a name we'll see much more of in coming years, as Mr. Couch will take charge of orchestrating the day-to-day management of the army of consultants, staff and contractors that will expend $1.5 billion to deliver the modernization project.  It appears that he will report to Marian Lee (CalMod executive officer).
  • Also at the next board meeting, award of a six-year, $24.2 million contract to LTK Engineering Services to carry out the procurement and supervise the design, manufacture, delivery, testing, and entry into service of Caltrain's new fleet of Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains.  LTK has a long history of providing Caltrain's in-house vehicle expertise, and this contract expands their role.  At typical overhead burden rates, the budget looks like it will pay for about 8 to 10 full-time positions for the duration of the project.
It's full steam ahead, even if there remain significant obstacles.
  1. HSR bond funds.  The elephant in the room is the ongoing legal wrangling over the high-speed rail bond funding that makes up about half of the CalMod budget.  CalMod executive officer Marian Lee recently gave a surprisingly candid statement to a Daily News reporter:
    Asked if there's any danger of Caltrain not receiving the state money if the high-speed rail project is killed in the courts, Lee offered a pragmatic response.
    "We have to hurry up and spend the money, because if they disappear, they disappear with the money," she said. "Then we are half short."
    The question seems to be whether they will get any money at all, never mind spending it quickly.  This could be the number one show-stopper as lawyers prepare to debate the minutiae of trip times and compliance with the bond act.  If the HSR project folds, things may quickly become interesting.
  2. Piece-mealing challenge.  The DEIR is likely to draw a lawsuit that challenges the boundaries between the electrification project and the high-speed rail blended project, claiming that electrification is the camel's nose under the tent for HSR.  CEQA prohibits a practice known as "piece-mealing," whereby projects are analyzed incrementally by parts to make the environmental impacts appear smaller.  Caltrain would have to make the case in court, as it already does in the DEIR, that the electrification project stands separately on its own merits regardless of the source of funding.  CEQA is a self-enforcing statute, so lawsuits of one kind or another are expected.
  3. Regulatory teething issues.  A big question mark is the CPUC rule-making process for 25 kV electrification, which despite the world-wide ubiquity of this technology is nevertheless a first within the borders of California.  The CHSRA consultants have run away with the process by tailoring it far too narrowly to high-speed rail, which may create a problematic regulatory gap for Caltrain and delay the electrification project.
As is customary in 21st-century California, the process will be far more expensive, slow and litigious than in other first-world countries.  Par for the course.