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So long Google bus? Silicon Valley tech giants back new Caltrain upgrades
Lauren Hepler | Silicon Valley Business Journal


Caltrain, Silicon Valley's primary commuter rail system, is slated to upgrade to new trains by 2019. Could a new coalition of businesses help move the needle sooner on upgrades to help address spiking ridership demand?

Along with gourmet corporate cafeterias and sprawling, insular tech campuses, Silicon Valley employers are famous for their unique approach to commuter benefits — namely, the practice of eschewing public transit for private charter buses.


Now, however, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that businesses including Google Inc., Oracle Corp. LinkedIn Corp., Stanford University and the San Francisco 49ers are among a group of area employers coming together to form a new Caltrain Commuter Coalition to improve local rail transit.


"This is the result of conversations we have had for years with these companies," Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's director of government and community affairs, told the Chronicle. "They realize that they can't continue to rely on shuttles or expand shuttles, and they've been frustrated, frankly, that they can't rely on Caltrain or public transportation."


As we have reported, Caltrain has struggled to keep up with surging ridership demands — particularly in the northern corridor running from San Francisco to Peninsula tech hubs like Palo Alto and Mountain View — ahead of a planned upgrade to new, electric trains in 2019. In the 10 years since the regional rail provider has offered a bullet train from San Francisco into the South Bay, the average number of daily weekday riders has jumped from 24,000 to 61,000 passengers.


In the meantime, the Chronicle reports that the new coalition will focus on the electrification effort and other capacity issues. Specifically, the group will, "press for funding to expand the commuter railroad's capacity, replace its trains pulled by diesel locomotives with electric trains, extend the tracks to the Transbay Terminal and make other improvements."


It remains unclear whether the businesses plan to invest their own funds into projects with Caltrain officials in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Other local transit agencies, like the Valley Transportation Authority, have also sought to enlist business resources in efforts to improve light rail and bus service, but there has yet to be a major funding announcement.


Another possibility is leaning on large employers for advocacy and lobbying support for other potential funding mechanisms. State and federal funds are always a possibility, and business advocacy group the Silicon Valley Leadership Group — another member of the new Caltrain coalition — has also signaled an intent to campaign for a 2016 sales tax hike to fund both roadway and transit improvements.


The dual possibilities for public and private investment in badly needed infrastructure upgrades is also reminiscent of the region's housing crunch. A debate is under way over whether developers, employers or taxpayers might be tapped by local cities to help pay for new affordable housing.

It all circles back to the notion that Silicon Valley's rapid job growth has created unique pressures for residents who live and work here day to day, which observers say have been mounting during the region's current tech boom.


Russell Hancock, CEO of think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley, told me earlier this fall that the entire region needs to "own up to our dysfunction," which goes way beyond funding shortfalls to encompass dynamics like entrenched suburban development patterns and political opposition to more dense, transit-oriented projects.


"The employers need to get really serious about locating near transit," Hancock said. "Local governments, they have to stare down the NIMBY forces."