The deferred decision on Caltrain electrification by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is a concerningÂ sign for federal transit funding. Is it a canary in a coal mine for risks to merit-based federal transit funding, or even for eliminatingÂ 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. Â Caltrain electrification is a high-ranking, shovel-ready project that would eliminateÂ 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.Â 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. Â The attack that delayed Caltrain project was a partisan move based on “alternative facts“. Â WillÂ other projects risk cherrypicking at the end of the pipeline?
Another risk is the president’s threat to defund projects in selectedÂ regions of the country based on unrelated policy issues. Trump has said that he would defund transportation projects in areas with “sanctuary cities”. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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opponent of government investment Grover Norquist can be seen today on Twitter crowing about how mass transit is obsolete, soon to be replaced by Uber, Lyft, and self-driving cars. Â This ignores research indicating that self-driving cars are likely to increase traffic congestionÂ (without major policy changes, and larger vehicles with dedicated right of way, i.e buses and trains).