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Here’s why the future of the Caltrain Corridor is so important

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The connection between new housing and transportation is too close to ignore

caltrains on the track Photo by Z.H.CHEN/Shutterstock

When California Republicans convinced the Department of Transportation to hold off on a $647 million federal grant for the transit corridor's electrification plan, they did more than stall transportation progress for the region. The delay would put thousands of new jobs and much-needed housing projects on hold indefinitely. It’s not hyperbolic to say that the future economic growth of California stands in peril.

This is worrisome, to say the least. So much so that Caltrain created a petition on the White House site, urging the current administration to reverse course. But it’s about more than simply moving forward with electrification. Caltrain’s success is inextricably tied to multiple transportation and housing issues throughout the state. Here are two recent articles that show how Caltrain can help the Bay Area move forward.

First, SPUR, in collaboration with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, and Stanford University, published “The Caltrain Corridor Vision Plan,” penned by SPUR's Transportation Policy Director, Ratna Amin.

Here are the five big moves they suggest:

1. Rail: Develop reliable, frequent all-day rail service between San Jose and downtown San Francisco, with enough capacity to meet demand.

2. Rail Stations and Last-Mile Connections: Offer quick and intuitive connections at modern, high-amenity stations.

3. Highway 101: Move more people on Highway 101, with less delay, by creating a high-occupancy/toll lane and filling it with transit.

4. Ferries: Establish public ferry service for Peninsula travelers at the Port of Redwood City.

5. A Seamless Transit Experience: Create one coordinated and convenient transportation network across different service providers.

But transportation isn’t the only area to consider. Caltrain serves some of the most profitable communities in the country. In Kim-Mai Cutler’s comprehensive piece published on Wednesday, “Trump Promised to be The Infrastructure President. Just Not For One of America’s Strongest Economic Regions” (a must-read for any Californian who cares about the Golden State), the noted journalist says in clear, no-holds-barred terms:

Electrification may not sound sexy. But it is imperative for a region with transit infrastructure running at full or even above capacity. Three of the world’s six most valuable companies by market capitalization — Google, Facebook and Apple — sit within just a mile or few of Caltrain’s main stops.

Since 2010, the number of passengers per day that Caltrain carries has exploded from 34,120 to 62,416 last year. Without electrification, the system will not be able to expand beyond 100,000 passengers per day. This will worsen congestion on the 101 and 280 and weaken mass and public transit options for Bay Area residents and workers.

This is neither a hypothesis nor hysteria. Cutler explicitly details what will happen without electrification. She also breaks down how how mass transit ties together with ride-sharing and self-driving cars, how a “small and vocal minority” could hinder “badly-needed infrastructure improvements,” and more.

Further, this will make our housing crisis worse. Cutler adds:

This leads to a chicken-and-egg problem in which longtime property owners and Bay Area voters refuse to build more housing because they are concerned about traffic impacts. Without increased transit capacity, it will not be possible to add meaningful amounts of housing, at all income levels, to the Bay Area.

If you want to know how to keep California’s innovation economy moving, and see how the connection of housing and transportation is so closely linked, read these two pieces today. While this isn’t the sexiest of subjects, as Cutler notes in her piece, it is one of the most important facing the Bay Area and California.