Petition Aims to Save Caltrain Electrification Funds

Overhead electrification in Connecticut. Caltrain electrification will survive the Trump Administration after all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Overhead electrification in Connecticut. Caltrain electrification will survive the Trump Administration after all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Caltrain staffers and transit advocates are urging people to sign a White House petition to convince President Trump to save its $2 billion electrification project.

From the petition:

Mr. Trump,

You have said infrastructure and jobs will be a keystone of your administration. When you spoke with Silicon Valley leaders you praised their innovation and said “anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you.” In talks with Japanese Prime Minster Abe, he cited high speed rail as technology that could create prosperity and thousands of US jobs. Shovel-ready transportation projects would put Americans to work in good manufacturing and infrastructure jobs. Caltrain Electrification would support over 9,600 Americans, not only in California, but in states including Utah, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Direct the FTA to approve the $647 million in funding for Caltrain electrification

As Streetsblog readers are probably aware, on Friday Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao opted not to authorize the federal grant that is key to funding the project. This was in response to a letter from the 14 Republican California members of Congress who are opposed to California’s High-Speed Rail (CaHSR) plans. It should be noted again that the letter conflates Caltrain electrification with CaHSR, which is a distinct project. In fact, as a piece in Slate covers well, the Caltrain electrification project pre-dates CaHSR by many years.

“This is the first project in history that has not been approved with its high ranking at this stage,” wrote Adina Levin, Director of Friends of Caltrain, in an email to Streetsblog. “Whether we’re considering the proposed de-funding of transit projects based on non-transportation, completely unrelated policy differences, or the urban-rural feuding around high-speed rail with arguments based on ‘alternative facts,’ a core issue here is signs of a move against merit-based funding of transportation projects. ”

The Secretary’s unwillingness to sign isn’t a guarantee that the grant will be terminated. “This wasn’t a decisive ‘no,’ explained Stuart Cohen, Executive director of TransForm. “This was, in my most optimistic moments, just part of the freshman chaos that seems to be enveloping the White House.” Cohen said if Caltrain electrification appears in the White House budget proposal, Chao could still approve the grant. He hopes this might just be “Chao and others…showing the House Republicans that they’re listening.”

While that may be possible, it’s hard to overstate the degree to which the project is now threatened. From Caltrain’s webpage: “A Full Notice to Proceed (NTP) must be issued by March 1, 2017 in order to maintain the terms of the contracts and avoid costly penalties and project delays. Before an NTP can be issued, PCEP [the electrification project] must receive the $647m Core Capacity Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the Federal Transit Administration.”

At best that’s now delayed, which will raise the cost of the project. If the White House doesn’t take corrective action soon, the project will almost certainly be delayed by many years. “Dominos start falling if it can’t get resolved very quickly,” said Cohen.

Indeed, it’s incredibly troubling to have members of California’s own delegation sabotaging key projects in the state they are supposed to represent. Furthermore, it’s hard to comprehend how a pro-business political party could be against building infrastructure to support some of the world’s largest businesses in Silicon Valley. Ironically, the Caltrain electrification project includes a $713 million contribution from the CaHSR project, which has to spend about 10 percent of its funds on connecting transit. That sum may actually go back to HSR and then could either be used to build it faster, or it will go to other connecting rail projects. “Some of the bond was supposed to pay for these end connections. Pacheco may qualify,” said Cohen, referring to the segment of HSR from the Central Valley to San Jose.

Either way, Sacramento lawmakers had better start thinking of California as an independent nation, albeit one that will be forced to continue making donations to Washington DC. That’s why State Senator Scott Wiener introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment to set the voter approval threshold for transportation funding measures at 55 percent, instead of the current two-thirds. “By setting the voting threshold at 55 percent, we can more effectively pass these critical infrastructure measures, and also encourage local governments to create more aggressive funding packages,” said Wiener, in an official release.

Of course, even if Wiener’s proposal passes, it will be too late for Caltrain’s electrification project. “Defunding Caltrain electrification is a nightmare scenario for our transportation system and our region and I hope we can reverse course on this disaster. But this just goes to show that we can’t rely on this Congress to lift a finger to fund any meaningful improvements to our public transportation system,” wrote Wiener, in an email to Streetsblog.

“This decision is a very bad sign for other transit projects in the Bay Area–BART-San Jose, the Downtown Extension, and other projects that might have used federal funding which is getting politicized,” wrote Levin. “I think we need a combination of continued pushback–calling out the national implications of moving away from merit-based project funding–and support for self-funding.”

Construction continues on California HSR (a viaduct in Fresno seen here) and killing Caltrain electrification won't have any effect, despite the beliefs of the Republican delegation. Photo: Wikimedia commons
Construction continues on California HSR (a viaduct in Fresno seen here) and killing Caltrain electrification won’t have any effect, despite the beliefs of the Republican delegation. Photo: Wikimedia commons
  • hikertom

    Why is Caltrain electrification controversial? It would increase the speed and capacity of a commuter rail line that is currently operating at capacity. This vital infrastructure project would put thousands of people to work, including 500 in Utah where the passenger cars are built, help tens of thousands more people get to work without driving, and boost the economy.

    All of the $647 million would go to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (Caltrain), and not to the California High Speed Rail Authority. HSR is a red herring.

  • bobfuss

    It’s not controversial but HSR is far from a red herring. It is the real target of the Republicans. And without an electrified CalTrain, HSR would end at San Jose and you’d have to change for a ponderous diesel train to SF. Which in turn might mean that HSR is not built beyond what’s already being built.

    CalTrain is the tail that is wagging the HSR dog.

  • crazyvag

    Caltrain project will but be shelved, but simply delayed. It will cost more and be finished later. HSR doesn’t really have to worry about it not happening, but as taxpayers, we’ll have to pay more or get less.

    The logic here makes as much sense as not funding a highway ramp because you hate Greyhound buses.

  • hikertom

    Caltrain needs to be electrified whether HSR is built or not.

  • Bruce

    Perfect analogy.

  • ctdfalconer

    The only controversy is the artificial one created by the administration and partisan legislators out of spite for the state of CA. These delays will only end up escalating costs and delaying completion, exactly the opposite of what self-described fiscal conservatives should desire.

  • Mike Jones

    Is it just me, but exactly what is Caltrain offering post-electrification? Of course it will eventually be all intertwined with HSR, but what sort of local/express train mix is Caltrain proposing?

  • John Murphy

    More trains will probably be locals because an electrified Caltrain can run so much faster that a local starts to approach end to end bullet run times.

    The biggest upgrade will be going from 5 trains an hour at peak to six. That’s a peak capacity increase that would be super useful at this point

  • Mike Jones

    I’m more interested in the off-peak which has always been Caltrain’s Achilles Heel.

  • John Murphy

    I’d love to see better service across the board. That could be improved now with more operating money, which is a different kettle of fish, If Caltrain said “this won’t impact off peak”, would that be damning for electrification? I don’t think so – the need to improve peak service is very acute right now, and has more external benefits.

    Consider this – investing in Electrification means trains are less costly to run and would increase ridership, opening up operating funds to improve that service. I would expect that to be the result.

  • Mike Jones

    “more external benefits” my admittedly UK experience suggests the opposite. If a good off peak service is offered, then at least 60% of riders travel off peak and weekends. This is better for sustainable living “smart growth”. Peak only services, which is basically what Caltrain has now, just perpetuates a car centric society.

  • John Murphy

    In the short term, congestion on US-101 is atrocious on peak. Increasing Caltrain ridership can perhaps hold that at bay – the alternative is a growing desire to expand the freeway, which is only justified by the congestion at peak.

  • y_p_w

    The proposal for electrification can easily proceed without ever having high-speed trains running over Caltrain tracks. The issue now is that diesel-electric trains don’t accelerate or stop all that quickly. The proposal is to use “electric multiple units” where each car has its own propulsion. These types are used a lot on the East Coast, such as Long Island Railroad. They’re lighter, accelerate faster, stop faster, and don’t have the push-pull issues that come from reversing a train.

    They plan on having up to 20% more capacity – especially with the trains that service more stations. Electric is also more reliable and puts out far less emissions. I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a diesel locomotive, but the exhaust smells just like a diesel truck’s.

  • y_p_w

    Electrification will be needed if Caltrain ever extends to downtown SF. Diesel isn’t supposed to be run in underground tunnels/stations.

  • Davey43

    The two projects, while not mutually exclusive, are part of an ecosystem. The fact that Caltrain was going to do this regardless of HSR (and the documents that prove it) realizes the potential need for the upgrade.

  • In addition to the revenue opened up by more efficient operations, being able to run faster will also likely lead to more users.

  • Mike Jones

    It’s all so ad hoc for a $2 billion project!

  • Nothing controversial about either project except that they’re public projects that Republicans don’t like and those folks are all too happy to create a self-fulfilling prophecy out of it. Obviously, they’re only good for complaining about the “high costs” and general timeline, then do everything they can do delay it and drive up costs, then turning around and pointing to the delays and high costs as vindication of concerns and that to then justify ending the project. But, as pointed out above, if this really gets scuttled, the money that CHSRA is putting it will likely go back to speeding up the overall project, so this little tantrum will ultimately backfire.

  • bobfuss

    The problem is compounded by the large number of stations. Although not all trains stop at every station, there are 21 stations between SF and SJ. That’s about one every 2 miles.

    No service is going to be rapid with that many stops, even if electric.

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