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Federal funding zaps Caltrain electrification back to life

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The Caltrain station near Fourth and King streets in San Francisco, Calif., seen May 16, 2017. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A major transportation tussle between California and President Donald Trump is over:

Caltrain electrification is on the way.

About $647 million in federal grant funding for the Caltrain electrification project held for months by Trump’s administration will now move forward, the Federal Transportation Administration said Monday.

“With the Caltrain project having met all of the statutory requirements, the FTA intends to sign the [full funding grant agreement],” the FTA wrote in a statement Monday morning.

That funding is key for the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project’s survival, and comes just before a crucial deadline. Without funding by June 30, needed electrification construction contracts would have been lost.

Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett previously said that would “be the same as rejecting the grant.”

Now, the project may have shovels in the ground in the “very near future,” said Dan Lieberman, a Caltrain spokesperson.

“This has become a very happy morning around the office,” said Lieberman. “This project is so necessary, the fact that it will be signed off on is great for riders, for employers, the economy.”

It’s been a long wait already, as electrification has been planned since the 1990’s.

Caltrain officials told the San Francisco Examiner that the recent delay of federal grant approvals may add $20 million in costs to the project, as the uncertainty spurred four-month agreement extensions with contractors. The total price tag to convert the commuter train system from diesel fuel to electric power will cost $1.98 billion, and generate nearly 9,600 jobs nationwide.

More than $1.3 billion has already been committed from local, state and regional sources, according to Caltrain. The project would electrify the tracks between San Francisco and San Jose for commuter trains.

Elaine Chao, who was appointed by Trump to serve as U.S. Transportation Secretary, had initially said she would not sign off on electrification funding. But the concern may not have been specifically about Caltrain.

The battle was widely reported as a proxy between California Republicans and Democrats over the fate of high-speed rail, which would rely on electrified Caltrain tracks to run between San Francisco and San Jose. Republicans characterized high-speed rail as a “boondoggle,” and went to a newly-Republican led Oval Office for aid.

With the approval of the $647 million, Caltrain will have secured all local, regional, state and federal funds needed for the project to move forward.

Caltrain will first replace about 75 percent of its diesel fleet with new electric trains, which are anticipated for delivery in 2019 and service in 2021, according to the agency.

That’ll help Caltrain boost ridership from the ever-booming Silicon Valley corridor, which officials say would greatly reduce traffic congestion too. Caltrain now serves 65,000 daily riders (comparable to the daily ridership of Muni’s 38-Geary bus), but electrification will boost rider capacity, and revenue, while decreasing fuel costs.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised the move by Chao in a post on Twitter late Monday morning.

“Wanted to share some great news: I got a call from @SecElaineChao on Saturday. She said she’d sign the @Caltrain funding agreement!” Feinstein posted.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in a statement that the decision is “a huge win for transit riders, the Bay Area’s economy and environment and public transportation generally.”
Lieberman, the Caltrain spokesperson, said the agency was informed the grants would be approved late Monday or early Tuesday.

“We are very thankful to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and the Trump Administration for recognizing the value that Caltrain Electrification will create for the Bay Area and the nation,” Hartnett, Caltrain’s general manager, said in a statement.

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