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Bay Area Victory: Caltrain Electrification Groundbreaking

9:17 AM PDT on July 24, 2017

All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

"Some people hate trains," joked Governor Jerry Brown, at this morning's groundbreaking ceremony for the Caltrain electrification and modernization project, at the Millbrae Caltrain station. The audience of business leaders, well-known politicians, Caltrain staffers, high-speed rail people, and many others involved in the project laughed. "I didn't say the majority!"

Brown recalled riding the Daylight train, a passenger train that ran between northern and southern California, when he was a boy. "In 1943 I vowed we would electrify Caltrain and have high-speed rail," he said, eliciting more laughter from the crowd.

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But then his tone turned serious and he thanked everyone for the hard work they did in advocating for Caltrain electrification, which was very nearly killed by the Trump Administration just a few months ago. And he looked forward to continued progress in transportation. "A country is great when it can get together and build things."

"We had a three-word slogan under Barack Obama," said Nancy Pelosi. "Build, build, build! It's about economics, vitality, sustainability and it's about quality of life." She paused for the noise of a passing diesel Caltrain locomotive, a sound that won't be heard in a few years. "It's about a foundation for the future."

Pelosi
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But Pelosi, along with others at the groundbreaking, bemoaned the "fight that shouldn't have been," with the Trump Administration to get $647 million in federal matching funds for a project that was approved before he took office. Fortunately, Elaine Chao, Trump's Secretary of Transportation, finally signed the Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement, after a massive lobbying effort. "It was teamwork first and foremost," said Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He helped put together a letter signed by 130 CEO's in Silicon Valley in support of the project. "Signed by the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, right down the line of the world's most iconic companies, and startups."

That letter, combined with intense lobbying in Washington, finally got the funding cleared. In other words, this was one groundbreaking ceremony where the participants had truly earned their slice of cake. The cake, by the way, was in the shape and livery of one of Caltrain's new electric trains--someone had stuck in a makeshift pantograph (the collector that sticks out of the top of electric trains and makes contact with the overhead wire to bring current to the engines) made out of a paperclip. "It has to be accurate," joked one person waiting for a slice of cake.

EMUCake
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"This is a long awaited and exciting day to finally move forward on Caltrain modernization," said State Senator Scott Wiener. "So many people have worked so hard."

State Senator Scott Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee's transportation director, Gillian Gillett.
State Senator Scott Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee's transportation director, Gillian Gillett.
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Indeed, but there's still lots of political and advocacy work to be done. As San Francisco's Mayor Lee said "Let's get all the way to Transbay Terminal. Let's finish the job!"

Extending to Transbay and finishing High-Speed Rail aren't the only additional jobs involved in modernizing the region's rail system. There's also lots of work to do in terms of land use. That's screamingly apparent around the Millbrae Caltrain station, surrounded by strip malls, parking lots, and 'Level of Service' designed intersections that are wide and hostile to pedestrians. Land use around that station is the antithesis of how land should be used around a transportation hub. There's little indication, so far, that anything is really going to be done about it.

Millbrae Station is surrounded by a built environment that is downright hostile to anyone not driving a car and must be changed if rail improvements are going to reach their full potential
Millbrae Station is surrounded by a built environment that is downright hostile to anyone not driving a car and must be changed if rail improvements are going to reach their full potential
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But today was a day of celebration for the start of a project some 20 years in the making. "You have to pay tribute," said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. "I salute all of you."

The first electric trains set should be delivered in 2019, and the first electric service will start carrying passengers in early 2021.

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