Does Caltrain funding denial signal anti-rail stance?

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, March 03, 2017

Is the US Department of Transportation’s (at least temporary) deferral of a $647 million Core Capacity grant to the project to electrify the San Francisco-San Jose Caltrain corridor merely part of the momentary freeze on administrative action that takes place during any transition in executive leadership? Or is it indicative of a broader anti-rail and/or anti-transit bias, or of prejudice against California, by the Trump Administration and/or Congressional Republicans? It is too soon to tell. But the fact that there is no evidence to flatly refute suspicions of the latter is troubling enough.

Passengers disembark from a Caltrain train at San Francisco's 4th & King Streets terminal on Aug. 8, 2013. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Caltrain electrification is the kind of infrastructure upgrade project that Republicans should be championing. Even laying the obvious environmental benefits (removal of dozens of diesel locomotives and their attendant emissions from the congested corridor) aside, the project’s economic benefits and its broad mix of funding sources are a model for the kind of partnerships that should attract bipartisan backing. One would be hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of other corridors in the country that represent as much of a business powerhouse, as Caltrain serves the heart of Silicon Valley. Electrification, combined with track and signal upgrades, would allow the commuter railroad to run even more frequencies and cut travel times, thanks in part to electric locomotives’ faster acceleration. This would allow the corridor to continue to add residents and employers in spite of highway congestion nearly reaching saturation point.

The federal grant accounts for only 33% of the $1.98 billion project total, with state sources paying a little over a third and local funds (including some private funds) covering about 12%. As Bill Vantuono at Railway Age suggests, should this deferral become a permanent denial, the state could come up with $647 million through a referendum, or might be able to get Silicon Valley giants to invest that much in the mobility of their own employees and contractors. But California, and the Bay Area in particular, is fortunate to be wealthy enough to afford it. The real danger is that, if DOT’s action becomes a trend, other localities that want to undertake similar investment in their future would lose a reliable federal partner, which will have a stultifying effect on their pursuit of anything other than perhaps toll roads and airport expansions that could pay for themselves.

One aspect of the Caltrain modernization that may be at play here is that it will eventually allow California High Speed Rail trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco to use the peninsula corridor in mixed traffic with Caltrain. This critical last xx miles of the link between the nation’s second- and 14th-largest cities is vital to the success of a system that is also necessary for the state’s long-term economic health. The expected growth in traffic between Southern California and the Bay Area in the next 50 years simply cannot be accommodated on highways and runways alone, and high speed rail promises to undergird future development and open up underserved markets, particularly in the Central Valley, to new opportunities by putting them within 90 minutes or less of major centers. Yet there is a befuddling amount of knee-jerk opposition to high speed rail amongst Republicans. Whatever perceptions this reactionary thinking is based on, it is not grounded in a rational analysis of the facts. Sadly, facts seem to hold little sway with those in power here in the nation’s capital these days.

If the DOT’s decision on Caltrain stands, and it is indicative of where the administration’s preferences lie, then all of the talk about “rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” will prove to be just that — only talk. An infrastructure program that excludes rail and transit will do nothing to transform our economy and built environment in a way that is competitive in the 21st Century. Expanding highways and airports alone will not allow us to sustainably move greater volumes of people and goods over the long term. Trains absolutely must be an integral part of the new paradigm.

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