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Caltrain officials seek backup funding for electrification project

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State legislators on Wednesday proposed a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to help fund Caltrain. (Ryan McNulty/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)
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It’s not quite Mr. Smith goes to Washington, but it’s not far off either.

On the heels of meetings with Caltrain Chief Modernization Officer Michael Burns, Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett and a bevy of Silicon Valley and lawmakers and regulators in Washington D.C., a backup plan was discussed to save Caltrain’s electrification project after it lost federal funding.

Burns updated the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board on the new efforts Tuesday morning.

“We are exploring other potential funding options, particularly with the state,” Burns told the authority. “One of the issues raised by the Republican delegation was the use of high-speed rail funds … in our funding plan. We are exploring whether there are opportunities to substitute those funds with other funds.”

He added, “And leaving no stone unturned, we are working with our financial advisors and private sector partners to explore other potential funding sources in the event the full funding grant agreement is not executed.”

The Caltrain officials presented the electrification project’s case in more than 50 meetings in D.C., Burns told the Examiner, and most regulators, lawmakers and others seemed — at least to Burns — to have no qualms with the project itself.

As is publicly known, the problem is with connections between Caltrain electrification and Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project.

Caltrain needs $647 million in federal grants from a grant program that President Donald Trump said he would phase out. The Caltrain grant was then stalled by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, mostly at the behest of California Republicans who oppose high-speed rail.

The tracks that would be built for Caltrain electrification are meant for later use by high-speed rail, and some funding from high-speed rail is pledged to help Caltrain gain electrification, connecting the two projects’ fates in the view of California Republicans.

Brown is also lobbying in Washington D.C., and Burns said some lawmakers he spoke with were concerned about lost jobs if Caltrain electrification goes unfunded.

“Senator (Orrin) Hatch, we met with him, we met with him personally,” Burns told the transportation authority board. “It was a very productive meeting.”

That’s because “our vehicle supplier, if the project moves forward, will build a manufacturing facility in Salt Lake City to build the vehicles,” he said, which is significant because Hatch represents Utah.

That would create more than 550 jobs and $50 million in investment in that facility, Burns said.

Burns told the transportation authority board, “Throughout those meetings we did not get one question on the merits of the project, or the benefits of the project.”

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