“Infrastructure and jobs administration” defers shovel-ready, high-ranked Caltrain electrification – what to do next?

Update: check this page for current top actions to save Caltrain.

On Friday, the Federal Transit Administration postponed a grant for the ready-to-go, high-ranking, congestion-relieving Caltrain electrification project, deferring the decision to the months-long federal budget process.

An administration with stated goals to revitalize US infrastructure and create millions of jobs is risking a project that would modernize an aging diesel system, take over 619,000 daily vehicle miles from the region’s congested roadways, and create over 9600 jobs in places like Salt Lake City, UT, Jacksonville, FL; Littleton, CO and more.  According to Caltrain, if the project is rejected for funding, it would be the first project in history with a similar high ranking to be rejected at this stage.

The delay to the project puts it at risk, because Caltrain will need to renegotiate the contracts for trains and construction if the delay extends past March 1, which waiting through the full budget schedule would do.

Politico’s transportation reporter assesses the transportation projects in major metropolitan areas that might be at risk due to a policy of retribution against cities with policies to protect the local immigrant population, including San Francisco and San Jose.   We wonder whether the action to delay electrification is the first step toward politicizing transportation, using transportation funding to reward and punish regions based on their voting patterns and unrelated policy preferences.

So what can we do?

The first step is still supporting the project with the administration.  Sign Caltrain’s White House Petition.

Also, call Transportation Secretary Chao and senior FTA staff and urge them to take the professionally responsible step of approving this project.  Send a letter to Secretary Chao here, and call their offices. Please be polite.  Welbes and Lana Hurdle are career employees and we’ll continue to need their help.

Elaine Chao - 202-366-4000
Matthew Welbes - 202-366-4040
Lana Hurdle –  202-366-6031

You can also send a message to the Transportation Secretary on Twitter, @SecElaineChao.   Click here to see what others are tweeting to Chao.

Another step is calling out California’s representatives who have advocated against Caltrain electrification funding. There is an event coming up on Tuesday evening in Bakersfield with Congressmen McCarthy and Nunes. These reps are getting an earful from their constituents on healthcare and foreign affairs.  There is a dinner in Bakersfield on Tuesday night, if you or anyone you know is in or near Bakersfield. It’s not free, but it is a chance to talk to the representatives who’ve been working hard to kill electrification with falsehoods about the project.

We’ll keep an eye out for more opportunities – let us know if you want to help with research on events in the districts of electrification opponents. Contact  adina.levin@friendsofcaltrain.com if you want to help with this task.

We should remember to thank the Bay Area representatives who have been fighting to keep electrification moving forward:

Anna Eshoo (650) 323-2984
Zoe Lofgren (408) 271-8700
Kamala Harris (415) 355 – 9041
Dianne Feinstein (415) 393-0707

Please share more good ideas to support electrification funding in comments.

What if Plan B is needed?

And what if the administration is dead set on defunding good, job-creating, congestion-relieving transportation projects for political reasons?  Here are some brainstorm thoughts on Plan B approaches, in the unwelcome event that we need to go there.

The project could be “value-engineered” – reduced in scope to cost less. A challenge with this approach is that alternatives such as electric locomotives don’t accelerate as fast as the “electric multiple units” that Caltrain has chosen.  Because the Caltrain corridor serves cities and stops that are relatively close together, the EMUs will do the best job of serving more stops in less time.

The Bay Area is planning a “Regional Measure 3“, the next generation of bridge toll funding. Almost everyone who crosses a bridge across the bay turns right or left to get to where they’re going; the Caltrain/101 corridor is part of the route for many transbay commuters.  This funding package could pick up the tab.

This past fall, Los Angeles and Seattle raised $80Billion and $50Billion respectively for transit.  If the Bay Area got its act together for a regional ballot “megameasure” on that scale, we would have enough funding to not care about politicized federal transportation funding.  If Caltrain electrification is at risk, the promised federal funding for other major projects in the queue, BART to San Jose and the Downtown Extension to Transbay is likely also at risk.  We may want to self-fund rather than wait to see when and if the federal government returns to merit-based transit project funding.

But we’d need to wait until November 2018 at earliest to see if an RM3 measure would pass, and a regional megameasure would likely take longer.  In the mean time, would the region be able to put up enough money to keep the project going?  This past fall, Santa Clara County raised $6.5Billion over 30 years, including $1Billion for Caltrain capacity increases and grade separations, and $1.5 Billion for the BART project to San Jose, which is now also at risk from politicized federal transit funding. Would the VTA board be willing to shift major transit funding to help get basic electrification done, and get compensated by the region when we take the next steps to self-fund?

Some experts believe that Caltrain could make a profit for a private operator, since Caltrain’s farebox recovery (revenue from riders) has been quite high, over 60%. For that matter, add the Downtown Extension to Transbay as part of the deal, which would provide a major increase in ridership.   A challenge for our local leaders in crafting such a deal – the US has a mixed record with public-private partnerships, since we tend to think of such deals as “privatization” – handing over infrastructure to a private company whose sole goal is making a profit.  Elsewhere in the world, regions craft deals with private operations to balance the private goal of making a profit with public goals supporting market share and congestion relief, transit-oriented development, and other such public goals.

Some are hoping for tech companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech would put up corporate funding to help get the project done.   Today, full-time employees of major corporations already pay lower fares than other commuters.  Would corporations funding Caltrain be public spirited to maintain and improve access for all, or would a corporate-funded service look even more like the private buses that are inaccessible to other commuters?

Re-organizing and combining with BART could help provide more stable operating funding and better transit connections, but wouldn’t directly help fill the big hole in capital funding caused by federal defunding of electrification.

What do you think about these ideas, and what ideas do you have? Please share in comments.

The step to delay electrification is a major blow, and a challenge to supporters of Caltrain, the region, and public transit in the region and around the country to find ways to upgrade and improve our transit infrastructure.

By Kabelleger / David Gubler (http://www.bahnbilder.ch) - Own work: http://bahnbilder.ch/picture/7847, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14816326

By Kabelleger / David Gubler (http://www.bahnbilder.ch) – Own work: http://bahnbilder.ch/picture/7847, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14816326