26 September 2020
Vote Yes on Measure RR
The peninsula rail corridor is under-developed
If a ride on Caltrain takes you back to 1985, that's no coincidence. Most of the fleet is that old, well past its sell-by date. And yet, with antiquated equipment and obsolete labor practices, this diesel commuter railroad still manages to carry the equivalent of three freeway lanes, and does so while covering a greater share of its operating costs (chart credit: Juan Matute) than any other transit operator in California. This level of financial self-sufficiency is unheard of for any freeway, and yet billions are spent on the futile exercise of adding lanes to the Bay Area freeway network and enabling the rich to buy faster trips on express lanes at the expense of gridlock for everybody else. A dense corridor with large job centers distributed throughout is ideally suited for regional rail, and the latent capacity exists to grow Caltrain into the equivalent of more than an eight-lane freeway, except faster, quieter, less polluting, and conveniently serving city centers. This can't happen without more investment.
Electric regional rail is the right technology choice
Here in Silicon Valley, we hear constantly about the next big technology leap: driverless cars, autonomous electric pods, door-to-door on-demand service hailed by an app, tunneled hyperloops, and endless promises of a clean, efficient and convenient science fiction future of seamless mobility. In that environment, it sounds positively retrograde to support what futurists often deride as 19th century technology, the same steel wheel on steel rail that first turned on the corridor in 1863. That framing misses the point: what we have here isn't a technology problem; it's a geometry problem. It takes space to move people. Short of inventing teleportation, you can't solve a geometry problem with the latest Silicon Valley technology, and none of these newfangled ideas can scale to the raw transportation capacity of regional rail, especially on a linear corridor such as the peninsula. There is no technology on the horizon that can carry this many people, using this little space, this fast, using this little energy. Throughput capacity is measured in units of people per square meter per second per Joule, and none of the exciting new mobility tech can beat regional rail on this metric. Hyperloops and pod cars have laughable throughput, and a driverless electric car sitting in traffic or queuing for a tunnel is still just another car, consuming the same scarce resource of space. All this new mobility tech is best thought of as a capillary network that will connect to the aorta of the rail corridor, each one enhancing the other in unclogging the circulatory system of our peninsula.
Caltrain is heading in the right direction
This isn't the first time that Caltrain finds itself in financial distress, and the big picture remains the same as it was ten years ago. The difference now is that the agency is actively planning for a better future, with its methodical business planning efforts showing a clarity of thought and ambition that is rare for an American transit agency. A logical plan driven by quantitative metrics is exactly the framework needed to convey and to realize the potential of the peninsula rail corridor, with a 2040 growth scenario that gradually builds on the foundation of the electrification project. A sound business plan is the seed; stable and reliable funding is the water to make it grow.
Much more than just a Covid bail-out
The pandemic and the high fixed costs of operating a railroad are putting a huge financial squeeze on Caltrain right now, all the more punishing because Caltrain derives a greater share of its operating expenses from fare revenue than any other agency in California. There is little doubt that the first step if Measure RR passes will be to bond against future tax revenue to survive in the short term. But that's not the point; RR was in the works before this started, and will be needed after it ends. As the economy revitalizes and transportation demand returns, Caltrain will be packed to the rafters again. All this talk of continued work-from-home and depressed transportation demand is myopic, mistaking our current predicament for a future trend. The creativity and vitality of our region is based on co-location and face-to-face contact--if it weren't, Silicon Valley or San Francisco simply wouldn't exist. Stable funding for Caltrain will ensure that modernization and service expansion won't stall after electrification is completed, and that we won't get stuck with mediocre commuter rail, just now with pantographs on top.
The reasons above come in addition to the strong arguments in support from Seamless Bay Area, Friends of Caltrain, and Streetsblog SF. Please vote Yes on Measure RR.
Now back to our regularly scheduled tough love.