Trump admin will consider new transit projects through September; Caltrain funding still in doubt

Facing bipartisan pushback against transit cuts, the Trump administration transportation department says it will continue to consider approving new transit capital projects projects through September.  The Transportation Secretary, replying to correspondence regarding a Minnesota project that, like Caltrain electrification, has gotten late lobbying from project opponents, said that the administration would consider approving new projects until October 1.

The October date is later than the deadline communicated to Caltrain regarding electrification – earlier communication to Caltrain indicated that new projects including electrification would not get funding if national transit capital programs continued to be eliminated in the president’s budget expected out in mid-May.   

But the fate of electrification remains murky, according to a Friday report from Senator Feinstein in remarks to a group of Silicon Valley Executives on Friday. Feinstein stated that inland republicans are still unified in their opposition to Caltrain electrification, and encouraged executives to contact these members of Congress.  

A powerful action Bay Area residents can take is getting the word out to voters who live in the districts of electrification opponents, by flyering on the platforms trains carrying inland district voters to and from the Bay Area.

Caltrain electrification had passed all hurdles for approval except the secretary’s signature by mid-February. While project approval is hung up in DC. Caltrain negotiated an extension for its shovel-ready project that lasts until June, and Caltrain will pay a penalty of up to $20Million if the delay extends to June.

The Trump administration has been getting bi-partisan pushback against a draft budget that would cut all new transit projects around the country, and remove all funding for Amtrak except for the Northeast Corridor.  

Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose state would benefit from a manufacturing plant that would serve Caltrain and other projects, told the Washington Post that he was “going to do what we can to get that done.”

 

Members of Congress of both parties have spoken out to defend projects valued for economic development in their districts, and rural republicans have been pushing back especially against the Amtrak cuts. 

Transportation Secretary Chao seemed to be leaning more favorably to the Boston area’s Green Line extension, another new project on the chopping block, following advocacy by Massachusetts Governor Baker, a Republican, although she would not give a final commitment, according to this report from the Boston Globe.

 

The $1.9 billion Minnesota light rail project, which would connect Eden Prairie, MN to downtown Minneapolis, isn’t quite as far along as Caltrain, they expect their final plan with funding to be submitted this summer.  As with Caltrain electrification, the FTA wants to see all of the local/regional/state funding commitments nailed down before they make their final decision. As with Caltrain electrification, a set of Republican legislators wrote to Chao urging the administration not to approve the project.  Caltrain had submitted the final plan to the FTA last fall – it was a few last requirements for contingency funding that bumped Caltrain’s project approval into the Trump administration.

With regard to funding new transit capital projects, the President’s draft budget takes a position long articulated by the Heritage foundation, which is that that transit improvements (but not highway expansions through cities) should be funded only with local funds.

One of the leaders of the opposition to Caltrain electrification, Jeff Denham of Turlock, was quoted in the WSJ article as “supportive of Caltrain and the electrification project”, so long as it changes which pot of state funding is used from the (fungible) state transportation budget.  This doesn’t make much sense, and could be a weakening of hard opposition.

It would help if Denham heard from local voters. Turlock is on the San Joaquin line – you can reach Turlock constituents by flyering Transbay or Jack London Square.

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