Courtesy of Caltrain
An artist’s rendering of an electrified Caltrain.
Despite the president’s preliminary budget suggesting significant slashes to a range of programs — including what could become a devastating cut to Caltrain’s electrification project — supporters of modernizing the regional rail system aren’t giving up hope.
Caltrain is banking on a $647 million grant from a fund President Donald Trump announced he’d seek to phase out.
Now, whether this final funding comes through for the $2 billion Peninsula electrification project may serve as an indicator for how the new administration plans to invest in transportation, said Caltrain Chief Communications Officer Seamus Murphy.
“Caltrain is in a unique position when it comes to that budget proposal,” said Murphy, who just returned from a lobbying trip in Washington, D.C.
The local agency’s pending grant application was nearing the finish line when the Federal Transit Administration deferred a decision last month, announcing it would await direction from the president’s budget.
Murphy said they expect to know more when the White House releases a more fleshed-out spending proposal in May. However, the clock is ticking as Caltrain seeks to secure funding by June 30 to meet contract deadlines. Now, Caltrain is focused on securing its grant before Trump potentially eliminates its funding source.
Trump’s first budget suggests eliminating the Department of Transportation’s Capital Investment Program, through which Caltrain is hoping to support its $2 billion modernization project. While his proposal is far from being approved, it drove the regional transit agency into a precarious position. As part of his 13 percent cut to the DOT, Trump seeks to phase out federal support for new CIP projects by only funding already approved projects.
Caltrain was on the brink of securing its full funding grant agreement when the FTA opted to defer the decision last month. It’s one of the few completed grant applications that met all requirements and is just awaiting approval from Trump’s new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
After meeting with policymakers in Washington, Murphy said many believe the FTA’s decision may foretell the government’s willingness to invest in transit.
“There’s growing support for our project and growing recognition about how this project and the decision that’s made on [the grant] is a real bellwether for what could potentially happen with transit investment moving forward,” Murphy said.
In his budget, Trump makes clear he will try and curb the federal government’s commitment to transit projects instead shifting the burden onto the localities that use and benefit from localized projects. He does however, express support for investing in nationally and regionally significant transportation projects.
Caltrain supporters contend electrifying Silicon Valley’s heavily used commuter rail will have widespread benefits to not only one of the nation’s most prominent and fastest growing economies, but by creating 9,600 jobs across the nation.
Murphy said Caltrain electrification “really checks all of the boxes. Not only are we creating jobs across the country, … we’re also helping to drive the largest and fastest growing employers in the country who are developing innovative technologies that are going to be used worldwide to drive economies throughout the globe.”
A delegation of Silicon Valley business leaders ventured to the nation’s capital to represent the Bay Area’s interests, including electrification of Caltrain.
Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group that represents 400 employers, said they’ve advocated for modernizing Caltrain for decades. Combined with immense local financial and political support, Guardino said federal funding for electrification is more than warranted.
“With the new White House, sometimes it bears repeating that California is a donor state. Our hard-working taxpayers and employers give more to our federal government in taxes and fees than they return to us,” Guardino said.
Murphy agreed, noting two-thirds of Caltrain’s multi-billion dollar project is supported by local and state funds, a contrast from prior generations where federal dollars played a more substantial role.
Guardino said the business community has a significant interest in alleviating congestion and touted the environmental benefits of electrifying the rail system currently carrying 60,000 commuters each weekday.
“This project is in a corridor that represents 1.6 million jobs, 14 percent of all of California’s [gross domestic product], 20 percent of California’s sales tax revenue and 52 percent of all the patents granted in California. This is the economic engine and epicenter of Silicon Valley’s innovation economy, which helps fuel the national economy,” Guardino said while describing Caltrain’s national significance.
Furthermore, Murphy contends Caltrain’s shovel-ready project meets the administration’s recent criteria of “focusing infrastructure investments, in whatever form that is, to projects that would move forward within 90 days of receiving funding,” he said, adding “this is the one you would want to fund if you want to create jobs and get people to work as soon as possible.”
Caltrain is geared up to begin construction; so much so that it could risk costs inflating if it doesn’t by June 30. Contracts signed with engineering firms last year were slated to expire March 1, prompting Caltrain to allocate $20 million to extend the deadline and lock in the $2 billion price tag.
But if federal funds don’t come through in time, Murphy said the project costs could balloon and derail electrification.
Guardino said it’s a shame that group of California congressional Republicans who urged the FTA to deny the grant was based on an intention to derail the state’s high-speed rail project, not necessarily Caltrain.
In January, 14 Republicans — including House Majority Leader U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield — sent a letter inaccurately suggesting the funding was for high-speed rail and urged the grant be denied until an analysis of the controversial state project was completed.
Caltrain and high-speed rail became intertwined when the two agreed to share the tracks spanning the Peninsula — a move codified by legislation and the state project committing $713 million toward electrification.
Caltrain supporters however, have long contended the electrification project has independent utility regardless of whether high-speed rail — which is in the process of conducting its own environmental review — ever makes it to the Peninsula.
Guardino questioned whether the Republican lawmakers had truly thought through their opposition. If Caltrain electrification falls through, the state funding would likely be reallocated toward bringing high-speed rail to their congressional districts down south and in the Central Valley, Guardino pointed out.
“They’re shooting themselves in the foot if their attempt is to kill high-speed rail with this effort,” he said.
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