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President’s Commentary – Key RailPAC priorities for 2020

By Steve Roberts – RailPAC President

[Originally published in Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2020]

Greetings!

In early January, members of the RailPAC Board developed options and came to a consensus on RailPAC’s policy priorities for 2020.  The two major ground rules were that the priorities had to be focused and actionable in 2020.  A list of about a dozen initiatives was consolidated and prioritized into four key priorities with two additional initiatives RailPAC will be following, but don’t appear to require RailPAC to take the lead.  RailPAC can offer support if the opportunity arises.

The four key 2020 RailPAC priorities are:

Surfliner Service Crisis and Vision – The recent collapse of the cliff at Del Mar clearly shows the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms to Surfliner/Coaster service.  There is no future for the Surfliner/Coaster route at its current location.  Given the magnitude of relocation project, it needs to start now.  And the collapse of the cliff at Del Mar is not the only threat. The route is also threatened by the same forces at San Clemente.  In addition, the Surfliner route has not developed an expansive vision that would deal with both the climate change issue along with dramatically re-imaging the rail line as an faster, electrified, high-frequency, high capacity service that would incent transit oriented development, generate maximum ridership and contribute to enhancing travel capacity within the Southern California megaregion. Southern California RailPAC’s members are focused on calling attention to the immediate threat to the route as well as championing the development of a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive passenger rail system. 

California High Speed Rail Funding Strategy – Even though this initiative is one to watch rather than take the lead, Board members clearly felt it had high importance because of the magnitude of the HSR program. This initiative is both complex and challenging.  It is challenging because, unlike most discussions which often take place at the staff level (which RailPAC can influence with information), the high-speed rail funding discussion is taking place at the highest levels of the Newsom administration and legislature.  Add in the attempted “claw back” of funds from the administration in Washington and as they say “this is way above my pay grade”.  It is complex because all of the discussions and the power plays are happening legislator to legislator with only flashes of light as legislators on both sides make their cases or work behind the scenes for a compromise.  RailPAC will keep members updated and stand ready to weigh in on this issue at the appropriate time.

Daily Sunset Campaign – One thing I think all RailPAC members can agree on is tri-weekly service for a long-distance train route generates sub-par ridership and ticket revenue results.  So not surprisingly, this initiative was identified as a key priority for RailPAC in 2020.  Building on the grassroots outreach over the past few years by advocates along the I-10 corridor, 2020 will see a new phase of the daily Sunset Limited campaign.  Details are outlined in an article on page XX of this issue of Steel Wheels.                

SCORE/Metrolink Vision – SCORE, Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion program, is a $10 billion capital program that will upgrade the Metrolink system, adding additional tracks, grade separations, signal work and investments to facilitate zero-emissions operations.  Currently Metrolink is working on rail operations modeling; development of design alternatives, identifying and prioritizing proposed capacity improvements, undertaking preliminary engineering and the environmental assessment for the proposed projects.  SCORE service goals would deliver faster, more reliable service with greater frequencies system wide and high frequencies within the core network.  This initiative will be being championed by RailPAC’s Southern California members who are especially focused on developing a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive transit system.  Near-term goals for these members is advocating for the timely completion of the third main track Hobart to Fullerton including the Fullerton interlocking project, double tracking of the Antelope Valley and Ventura lines and a new station at Pacoima.

Initiatives being monitored:

Several initiatives proposed as 2020 priorities were not rated as highly as the others listed above but they still are important.  These are:

Dumbarton Transportation Corridor (Dumbarton Bridge) – The Dumbarton Transportation Corridor is a critical connection linking San Joaquin Valley and East Bay housing to job centers in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County.  The current highway bridge is at or near capacity with job growth continuing.  Building a replacement rail line and bridge utilizing the current rail right-of-way would add substantial cross bay capacity to this corridor while facilitating connections and/or direct service from several existing high-capacity transit operators – Bay Rapid Transit District (BART), Caltrain, Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Rail (ACE).  From the transit perspective the lack of service on this corridor represents a critical gap in network connectivity.  Because of these connectivity benefits, RailPAC considers this an important priority.  Currently the project is undergoing the Environmental Review Process so advocacy opportunities are limited until the report draft is completed.  RailPAC’s Northern California members will be monitoring this project.

Mental Health/Homelessness/Security – For riders on intercity and commuter rail their “final mile” is most likely on transit and/or walking.  In addition to being concerned about this as a social justice issue, RailPAC members are also concerned about how mental health and homelessness impacts the perception of security both on-board and around transit stations.  This perception results in lower ridership and thus reduces the community benefits from the large investments in transit systems.  There appear to be several initiatives underway in Sacramento in an attempt to address these issues.  While RailPAC has no expertise to offer solutions to mental health and homelessness, RailPAC can comment on the impacts of failing to address these issues.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

Freight Rail Carrier Cost Shifting – This priority focuses on actual and proposed changes in rail freight operations, long-mega trains and single person operator freight trains that potentially have significant negative public impacts.  The issue is not so much the changes to operations, but the implementation of these changes without the investments by the freight railroads to mitigate the potential public impacts of these changes; i.e. blocked crossings and delays to passenger trains.  In effect the freight railroads are shifting the costs of these operational changes, which should be internal and borne by the carriers, to the general public.  While RailPAC has no expertise in the specifics of rail freight operations and investments to mitigate the negative impact of these operational changes, RailPAC can attest to the public costs of these changes.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

 

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