Originally expected to cost $1.5 billion and be operational in 2019, the projected budget for electrifying Caltrain, which had already ticked up to $2.3 billion earlier this year, has just been increased to $2.44 billion with a completion date that’s currently projected in the fourth quarter of 2024.

Keep in mind that the electrification/modernization budget doesn’t include a future extension of Caltrain to San Francisco’s new Transit Center and the projected $6 billion “Downtown Rail Extension” (DTX) is in the process of being rebranded by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in an attempt to “raise awareness and public support” for the underfunded project, “reaffirm its benefits,” and to “better resonate with voters.”

We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

66 thoughts on “Budget for Electrification of Caltrain Hits $2.44B”
  1. Yet another project on the long list of “Bay Area Glacial Transit Disasters.” Can anyone point to a project that has been completed on-time and within a reasonable margin of the original price? Bay Bridge, Central Subway, Van Ness BRT, BART to China…

    1. They spend on the big fixes and micro projects but when someone suggests a mid range simple fix loop or link that makes sense reduces traffic and actually provides a better service for communities outside the downtown it’s ignored shelved or shoveled into an early grave…

    2. It’s a problem nationwide. American infrastructure and construction costs are out of control. Consultants, abuse of environmental protection laws, frivolous lawsuits, and a mind-boggling refusal to adopt international best practices cause huge cost overruns.

        1. The NYC Second Ave subway was proposed in the 1920s and it was decided that the cost would be unreasonable. Then again in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and so on. Only recently was it decided that modern tunneling miracle technology would make this project pencil out. After a hundred years of solid documentation showing that subway could not be built for a reasonable cost we decided to build it anyway and now that proves that development no longer works. Sure, Mac. Sure.

          Then the Van Ness BRT uncovered loads of problems that would just have it dug up again in no time, so the extra work got front loaded to avoid having to pay extra over time. So that also proves we can’t develop anymore. Sure, Mac. Sure.

          Seems like the real problem is the electorate and their leaders being ignorant and short sighted which isn’t really a huge change from history.

      1. Its 90% plus the “environmental protection” and related post 1960’s regulations.

        Two perfect examples.

        When the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur was damaged in 2017 and had to replaced it was done in 8 months. By setting aside all “environmental protection” and related regulations. CalTrans did a fantastic job rebuilding. In an interview a senior civil engineer he said that there had been plans to replace the bridge but as the project was likely to take at least seven years due to all the environmental and “community input” regulations the project was never done. Because it was going to be far too expensive. In civil engineering time = money.

        The second example was the 520 floating bridge in Seattle. The cost of replacing what was built in the early 1960’s as is, the floating concrete structures, was about $300M. Which was the final cost for just the environment impact and community input study process for the new bridge. The final cost of the new bridge, when all the financing costs are added in, will be well over $5B.

        There was a case for an extra dedicated bus lane, maybe, but the “transit activists” wanted it to carry light rail so the original road bridge had to be vastly over engineered to handle light rail. Which will carry very few passengers at incredible high tax payer cost. Plus the very well to do neighbors each side of the bridge added another $1B plus to the cost for vastly expensive “beautification” work.

        Then we have the $300M dollar bike lane on the Bay Bridge east section. Which will work out at least $70 for each single bike journey during its likely lifetime. Those of you who were around in the 1990’s will know just why it wont last as long as the old iron cantilever section bridge.

        Thats why all public civil engineering projects are financial disasters. If you want 1950’s costs then you have to go back to 1950’s regulations. Which were purely about engineering. Which is the way it should be. When badly need infrastructure projects could not be held up at huge expense or sabotaged by a very few well heeled cranks. Which is what the current regulatory process guarantees.

        1. Wasteful as it is, your $300M bike-lane is a tiny fraction of the bridge’s cost. And many of the most costly add-ons – the light rail stupidity, for example, IIRC were approved by voters.

          So yes: little of this is engineering…but nor is much of it “regulation”

          A more PolySci-savy answer would be that projects are deliberately projected at unreasonably low costs so they’ll get public approval

          1. Part of the “bid low, then raise the cost later” strategy is enabled by the asymmetry of information between the customer and contractor. There are not many firms qualified to build mega-projects. the successful forms retain senior engineers and project managers with a track record of bringing in profits. On the other side of the table representing the customer are a random collection of civil servants and politicians, most of whom have never been directly involved in a megaproject and none of whom manage construction as their primary job.

            When the inevitable “unforeseen problems” are revealed, the building firm is well covered by contractual terms. The contractor proposes change orders with the associated cost escalations. The customer is powerless given that the only alternative is to cancel and start over with a different contractor, which would introduce huge delays and still face the same “unexpected” costs.

            There’s no easy answer here except for the customer to invest more into finding holes in the contractor’s proposal instead of sitting back and let them drive. In particular for Caltrain electrification many of the change orders are due to problems found when drilling the foundations, triggering utility relocations and engineering redesigns. “Unexpected” underground conditions should instead be expected and accounted for along a 150 year old right of way passing entirely through an urban area.

          2. The cost overrun on the Bay Bridge is mainly the fault of the battling Browns. Especially Jerry and his “signature structure”.

            The real irony being that original cost of retro fitting the cantilever section in 1990 was about three times the cost of the bike lane. And about 5% of the final cost when you add in all the extra financing costs over the decades. And of course the real irony here is the “signature structure” part of the bridge will fail in the next major earthquake. Which the cantilever section would have ridden out easily. The story of the replacement of the doug fir pilings with lower quality “modern” ones sums up just how badly engineered the whole structure is.

            Maybe they will rebuild it better after it fall down again.

        2. tfourier, if you think East Link across the 520 bridge will carry “very few passengers”, you must not be familiar with Seattle.

          1. My mistake, I was thinking of the I-5 bridge, which is what East Link runs over. The 520 bridge was built with the option of adding more pylons later to support a new light rail line.

          2. Known Seattle for many decades, lived there for most of one of them. Also been reading the light rail traffic projection studies since the mid 1990’s. Also been following the gutting of Seattle once fantastic bus system to pay for money pits like the SLUT, the University Link, and the Eastside links.

            I have also seen the realistic projections of ridership. Not the fantasy ones. And the under-performance of what has been built so far. The actual numbers, not the press releases from activists and vested interests

            Back in the 1990s and 2000’s I used to hold up Seattle of how you can build a fantastic public transit system using buses. And the Bus Tunnel. I know my way around the system. How to get from Northgate to Madison Park. Or Belltown to Bellvue. Fast, comfortably and efficiently by bus. MUNI in comparison is like bus buses in a third world country,

            But now. It just a huge money pit with a bunch of fancy low ridership projects with about as much relevance to efficient and cost effective public transit as the Monrail. And the bus system, which actually worked, is a shadow of its former self

            So yeah, I know Seattle. And I suspect a lot better than you do. It used to be a very nice city. About 20 to 30 years ago.

        3. The old eastern span of the Bay Bridge absolutely did not have the structurally sound lifespan that the new eastern span does/will. And it’s not even close.

          1. Well according to the guy from UC Berkeley who did the original seismic hazard study for the cantilever section after 1989 the self anchored suspension section of the replacement has a even higher seismic failure risk than what it replaced. Basically 100%. A very big story locally at the time. Would have been late 1990’s if I remember correctly.

            Now the boring bit of the replacement section is going to survive. Which is what was originally going to be built all the way to Treasure Island. But that fancy bit. Jerry Browns bit of affectation architecture. That will fail. Which means the whole structure fails.

            After all it was only because a few bolts were 9 inches too short that the cantilever section failed in 1989. One small bit fails, it all fails.

            Now the really interesting seismic failure in 1989 was the Cypress Structure. If it had not been for half assed CalTrans “seismic upgrade” only one small section would have failed. Not the very long bit that did,

            Civil engineering is like that

        1. A $2.2billion dollar project that according to the SD Union Tribune is the most expensive infrastructure project in the region’s history. For a metro area as large as San Diego’s that seems like a small project (certainly in terms of cost). If I am not mistaken, the entire trolley system was fairly easy to build and costs held in check (compared to similar projects elsewhere over the years), ease of availability of land that had to be secured for separating tracks from traffic (outside downtown), much of it running on city streets downtown and all of it at grade or elevated.

          1. The point is that the budget is totally absurd. Cities all over the developed world can build out vastly more miles of new rail lines (including extensive tunneling) for the cost of SD Trolley blue line extension.

          2. The argument was’t whether the cost was expensive. It was about infrastructure projects being sold as misleading to the public to get them to agree with what will end up being a lie. San Diego was upfront with the costs, and voters knew what they were getting. And it was on time and on budget. More governments should follow suit and maybe we would gain trust in our institutions again.

          3. They’re still lying about what things can and should cost. We have global proof that we’re overpaying many times over. Being transparent and on target with an original figure that was grossly inflated means the figure is still grossly inflated.

      1. That was handed out to a private contractor. Just like the fixing of the Santa Monica Freeway after the Northridge quake in ’94. If I remember correctly it was the same guys, E. L. Yeager.

        1. That project was under budget and fast because it was bid high and the contractor literally had all of the equipment and logistics on site for another mega-project, the demolition/construction of the Bay Bridge eastern span. Just shifted resources that were already in place, which probably kicked out the Bridge construction and added costs in a different legder. Pure luck it was where it was at the perfect time.

          1. Additionally, the contract had a target date that came with hefty bonuses for completion before, and hefty fines for completion after, said target date. Not surprisingly, contractors finished project before the completion target date.

            Of course, this rationality is only applied to automobile/truck projects. Imagine if this sort of rationality were applied to the CA HSR project, or the Central Subway.

          2. But they did the same very fast turn around on the Santa Monica Freeway failed sections in LA in 1994. I read a very interesting project post mortem in one of the civil engineer magazine a few years later. It was more fantastic project management and a great team. Not just blind luck.

            And as I said, CalTrans when not held up by regulations can do great work too. I was reading recently a description of the civil engineering work done for the two massive slides on 1 in Big Sur. Great work.

          3. @Rob B re: CA HSR

            You must be joking. That is pure fraud by this stage. Nothing more.

            You should hear what the Alstom people said when the State desperately tried to get them involved to dig the HSR out of a hole. So to speak. The French took one look and treated it as some kind of stupid joke and walked away. Which gives you an idea of just how pathetic the HSR project is.

            Normally when the French see some desperate idiot with money , most especially an Anglophone, they will normal milk the mark for as much money as possible as long as possible. Clearing out just before the inevitable failure happens. So when even the French dont want even to get involved you know a project is not just stupid but has already completely and totally failed.

            Here’s a hint. Want to know why passenger rail failed in the US? Look no for further than the Federal and State Progressive Era railroad regulations. For example, if SNCF/RFF had had to work under the US Federal regulatory and legal framework for railroads there would have been no TGV. Who said so? A very senior SNCF guy at the time of the great North East Corridor fiasco.

          4. Passenger rail “failed” in the U.S. because it was replaced by modes – cars and planes – more suited to the conditions (long distances and low densities); and France seems like a particularly weird choice to represent good (Bon??) labor regulations. But, yes, your point with regard to HSR is duly noted: you can’t do a job well if you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Now back to the actual topic: the Caltrans electrification.

    3. Can anyone point to a project that has been completed on-time and within a reasonable margin of the original price?

      I nominate The Caldecott tunnel. I’m not sure it strictly meets your parameters – how do you define “original” over years and years ?? – but it’s notable in that the first (opened 1937) Project also took a long time – 8 years from first studies to completion – and was beset by problems…unlike the current Bore.

      The past wasn’t always so great.

      1. The 4th bore should have included a bike path in an adjacent tube. Spending billions on another traffic-inducint tunnel was only possible because of a huge bond floated by the Schwarzenegger regime. All that money just to avoid the inconvenience of switching traffic directions in the center tunnel for peak hour traffic.

        Somebody influential must live in Walnut Creek.

        1. The reversible center bore worked well enough when the contra-flow traffic levels were low….not so much now when they aren’t (unless you feel 15-30′ backups every day for several hours are efficient).

          As for your bike lane: that seems like it would have been enormously expensive for something that would get (relatively) little use; might I suggest an alternative(?): reopening the original (1903) Tunnel for bike traffic ?? It’s partially collapsed – so would need work – and is at a higher elevation, but certainly would have a better shot at cost-effectiveness,

    4. It’s my understanding that the SMART train project was not much over budget, although it was delayed and isn’t yet fully completed.

    5. Why did you reserve your remarks for only transit projects? The east span of the Bay Bridge was 700% over budget and 6 years behind schedule.

  2. Little known fact: the original “electrification” plan strung all the wires, but then only had about 30% of the trains as electric. The remaining trains would remain diesel for the foreseeable future.

    They of course came up with that plan to make the cost of electrification look cheaper than it was, and they could always tack the additional costs on later as “overruns”, which is, I assume, some of the source of the overruns here, but maybe they haven’t started in on those.

    The other fun fact was that the steps on the Caltrain cars were to be eliminated by raising the platforms that you wait on, to a higher level. The higher platforms would mean you’d walk straight on to the train, without going up steps, which accounts for all but about 90 seconds of the time savings of the electrified cars, as the steps slow people down. But because the old train sets would make up 70% of the fleet, they had to leave the lower doors where they were, because the platforms couldn’t be raised until the old train sets were retired. This then resulted in the new train sets being designed with two sets of doors, one for the higher platforms, one for the existing ones (see name link), and almost no time savings from the new trains until the diesel train cars were retired, and the platforms raised.

    As for a downtown station, will never happen in your lifetime. Right now, Muni shuttles people between the station and the downtown, and at least before covid, the shuttle buses were always jam packed, gaining Muni lots of fares for a small amount of drivers. Muni won’t survive the loss of those efficient fares, so they’ll never allow a downtown link to occur, until a high speed rail system forces them into it. And you’ll never see that in your lifetime. The Bakersfield to Merced line is planned for 2030, but good luck even making that deadline, it’s not even fully funded. The remainder of the system is 4X the size of that project.

    1. And you can see the duplicate high/low doors on the lead image of the train. That’s the actual equipment built bespoke for Caltrain. Either that or a very good graphic.

      The hi/lo door configuration triggered another conundrum about how disabled passengers can reach the onboard toilet. There needs to be a path for wheelchair users to reach the toilet whether they board from the high or low doors. I don’t know how that was resolved. The best idea discussed involved an onboard wheelchair lift which seems expensive and awkward.

      1. I thought they got rid of the high/low door configuration and the extra doors are going to be delivered plugged.

        1. They might plug the upper set initially, but once CAHSR comes up the peninsula, the high doors will be required after the platforms are raised to accommodate CAHSR.

    2. You are absolutely correct: we will never see Caltrain run to downtown SF. Voters of the DTX were lied to and we got screwed over. SF got an overbudget bus station.

      1. Look on the bright side – this gave SF an excuse to up-zone the area around TTC, It resulted in the eyesore Salesforce tower. Luckily the equally dismal Oceanwide project – a beneficiary of the TTC up-zoning, won’t be built. For a while SF made hay from the up-zoning. Developers paid a bundle for Parcel F which in hindsight was a bad investment. That project won’t move forward until the next up cycle, but SF go its tens of millions.

          1. Eh, he’s just the same type that said the same things about the Transamerica Pyramid when it was younger. It ended up becoming an SF landmark, and so will Salesforce.

  3. The transit centered housing projects in Millbrae, Bayshore and Redwood City are predicated upon the idea of frequent service that at the same time doesn’t dilly dally with stopping at every station. If you’ve ever taken a late night Local you’ll remember how it takes foreveeeeer to get to where you need to. You’d soon regret moving into one of these projects if Caltrain operated at pre-pandemic service levels. Add to that the heavy Diesel smoke from the beyond-EOL engines. To that end, Caltrain needs major upgrades so they can, as an example, establish Redwood City as a major transfer point as promised by the advocates of housing developments near Caltrain there.

  4. Politics plays a big role in allowing “pet” projects to get built even if those projects are not the best use of transportation dollars. The Central Subway cost almost 2 billion dollars. One argument was that it was needed to bring workers to the Central SOMA where a large increase in jobs was projected. However, in the new post pandemic working world, that vision of large numbers of new jobs won’t come to pass. Ironically a SFBT report on one of the new CS stations stated the hope now is that the subway will serve to bring tourists from SOMA to Chinatown. If that is all it really ends up doing what an absolute waste. Dollars were spent that could have gone towards far more vital regional projects.

    What projects you ask? Here’s one – a second BART tube connecting the Coliseum Station to Oakland International Airport on to Alameda and across the Bay to Burlingame. Between Brisbane/SSF and Burlingame well more than 12 million feet of office/lab space is approved or in the process of so being. Tens of thousands of new jobs will be created in the North Peninsula this decade and many of those workers will likely live in the East Bay.

    Logically a new tube serving a burgeoning jobs hub should have priority over a short subway that will be used by relatively few. To whit – Meta just signed the second largest lease in the Bay Area this year. Taking 520K feet at Burlingame Pointe while the 600K foot 5M building – just blocks from a CS station – still has no tenants.

    1. Rose Pak got the Central Subway in exchange for the Embarcadero Freeway teardown. The real scandal around the Central Subway however is how the City dropped the ball on the North Beach / Fisherman’s Wharf extension. It would have taken around $250m to purchase and develop a site for a North Beach station yet for two years, there was supposedly no money to be found for that. In case you wonder, the property in play was the old Pagoda theater. Fast forward a couple years – when the JPA needed a bailout for cost overruns at the new Transbay terminal – to a similar tune of around $250m – it took the BoS a mere two weeks to find the funds to cover the tab.

      1. Exactly. By all rights HSR should have come up the east side of the Bay from San Jose to a “grand central” in Oakland connecting with AMTRAK, BART, CalTrain. The East Bay is central to more of the BA’s population than any other part of the area. Politics and the influence of people like Feinstein and Pelosi drove a ridiculous path for HSR. Imagine taking it for a business trip in SF then needing to go east for another meeting in Denver. Oops, you have to take a bus from the TTC to Oakland to get onto AMTRAK. On top of which residents and localities on the Peninsula opposed it – there would have been lawsuit after lawsuit – while the East Bay cities wanted HSR to come up the existing right of way/

        1. Even if there was a continuous 220mph high speed rail line connecting SF/Oakland to Denver, the end to end trip would be made by a very low number of people because it would take so much longer, and very plausibly cost more than flying.

        2. If you needed to go to Denver after a HSR trip to SF you could board HSR again and take it to Millbrae, transfer to the BART shuttle train to SFO and then be in Denver in a few hours.

          As I recall, the HSR authority chose the final route into SF, not Feinstein and/or Pelosi. This was done after endless meetings and input that they solicited from all stakeholders (residents and business). If you are saying the ladies bent the arm of the HSR authority please provide a link to that.

          Long term planning done several years ago (2016) suggested upgrading Amtrak’s Capital Corridor from San Jose to Sacramento by straightening out parts of the current track or using new train car technology that allows cars to lean in tight corners while running at 100-150mph. I rode on a train like this in Japan that tilted at fast speeds years ago (the Sonic on the eastern side of Kyushu). The cost is far less than traditional (and faster) HSR by using existing track and new technology.

          Likewise the rejected Altamont option for HSR has been replaced with Valley Link which will connect Lathrop/Manteca (also a terminal for ACE trains to San Jose) and Tracy in the Central Valley to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station for passengers connecting to Oakland and SF with more frequent and reliable service.

          1. The Capitol Corridor leg should be HSR, and the second TB Tube should bring it to the TBT and continue on the Caltrain path. This would vastly increase both the SF and Silicon Valley commute sheds. Who would want to sit in traffic for a couple hours trying to get from Vacaville to SF when they could take a fast train?
            Much of the Corridor trackway is very vulnerable to sea level rise and will need to be reconstructed in the somewhat near future to continue operating, It’s rather shocking that nobody seems to be talking about this yet. Newer tracks could be built to support HSR.

        3. It’s 1000 miles from San Francisco to Denver. Even in Europe, where train service is quite good, no business person takes the train 1000 miles. Everyone would fly.

          1. Neither of you get it. High Speed Rail isn’t about consumer economics. Aircraft contribute 12 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and account for three percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas production, and compared to other sectors of transportation, there’s no technological advancements on the horizon that will see those emissions reduced in a meaningful way.

            In order to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, people just need to fly less, and HSR is a good alternative to so much flying.

          2. Or just travel less: there’s no constitutional right to visit Disneyland….particularly if it means spending billions and billions of public dollars to do so.

          3. OK. You take the ill-fated HSR to the TTC. Short business trip. Then you want to take AMTRAK to Reno (a stunning beautiful ride as you climb the Sierras) but wait. You need to catch a bus from SF to Amtrak. The enclosed waiting area for that bus is now gone. You have to wait on the sidewalk for the bus. Ouch.

          4. Yes, HSR is a great alternative to flying. That’s why I’m a huge supporter of it, from downtown SF to downtown LA. It is essential for our climate future.

            Which has nothing to do with Denver. Lets spend our HSR money on plausible routes, like SF to LA, not on implausible ones, like SF to Denver.

      2. More likely Pak probably thunk up the project with pal Willie Brown so he could pork up another big public infrastructure project and hand out various construction contracts to his friends, similar to the BART extension to SFO. An alternate SFO-access project would have electrified all of Caltrain and brought it to the Transbay Terminal, and added a SFO station. At the time, it would have been much cheaper than BART, but everything is cheaper than BART. During his tenure, WB’s supes also killed funding for a CalTrain TBT extension, I figured, because he didn’t have all the TBT land deals lined up yet.

  5. Both politics and proximity determine project viability. Look at Highway 37. Since it doesn’t really pass through any densely urbanized areas and crosses 4 counties, even though it was experiencing closures from flooding and is very SLR-vulnerable, it’s an extremely expensive fix, so nobody wanted to deal with it.

    Around here, transit projects are held up by feuding transit operators. The Bay Area’s 26 separate and competing transit agencies makes for an unworkable environment that falls far short of serving riders. Transit planning at its worst.

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