Is Caltrain electrification a coal mine canary for risks to national transit funding?

The deferred decision on Caltrain electrification by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is a concerning sign for federal transit funding. Is it a canary in a coal mine for risks to merit-based federal transit funding, or even for eliminating federal transit funding altogether?


Until now, all transit projects that ranked as high as Caltrain electrification that got to the desk of the transportation secretary have been approved.  Caltrain electrification is a high-ranking, shovel-ready project that would eliminate over 619,000 daily vehicle miles from the roadways in one of the most congested corridors in the country between San Francisco and San Jose, California.  Electrification will enable faster, more frequent service on a line that has been seeing over 60,000 average daily boardings, which is an increase of more than double over the last decade. The locally popular project had lined up a full package of local, regional and state funding.

If Caltrain electrification is defunded by the federal government, it would be the first project in history with its high ranking to have an FTA grant denied at final approval stage.  The attack that delayed Caltrain project was a partisan move based on “alternative facts“.  Will other projects risk cherrypicking at the end of the pipeline?

Another risk is the president’s threat to defund projects in selected regions of the country based on unrelated policy issues. Trump has said that he would defund transportation projects in areas with “sanctuary cities”.  This would risk projects in the Bay Area serving cities including San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, and other cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. Our legal expert friends tell us that such an approach would probably not survive legal review.  But such an attack on transit funding based on unrelated policies would require lengthy litigation to defend.

Or, is the deferral of Caltrain electrification the canary in a coal mine for a broader budget initiative to defund federal transit funding entirely.  DC-based coverage of the proposed White House budget suggests that the upcoming budget may draw on the Heritage Institute’s budget blueprint which proposes zeroing out federal transit funding.

Perhaps in anticipation of the federal budget, longstanding opponent of government investment Grover Norquist can be seen today on Twitter crowing about how mass transit is obsolete, soon to be replaced by Uber, Lyft, and self-driving cars.  This ignores research indicating that self-driving cars are likely to increase traffic congestion (without major policy changes, and larger vehicles with dedicated right of way, i.e buses and trains).

In summary, the risk to electrification funding is not concern not only to Caltrain riders and car commuters in the Peninsula Corridor, but to other rail/transit across the country.
The upcoming news about the President’s budget proposal is important. Organizing now is important. Supporters of transit may need to swarm to save not only Caltrain electrification but merit-based federal transit funding.
Update: taking a page from colleagues in California, Streetsblog reports that state lawmakers in Minnesota are trying to take the unprecedented step of killing a project that has already been funded.  “State lawmakers in Minnesota are appealing to Chao to sink Minneapolis’s Southwest Light Rail, a 15-mile route between downtown the western suburbs expected to draw about 35,000 weekday passengers” The project has already been approved for $929 million in New Starts funding for the $1.85 billion project. However, by law “the FTA grant funding can’t be transferred to roads. ‘They can’t reprogram [Federal Transit Administration] funds,’ said Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America. ‘There’s no way to do that. They’ll just lose the money. That money will just go to another place.'”   As with Caltrain electrification, this is an effort to “cherrypick” and kill approved projects at the end of the pipeline.