How the Infrastructure Bill affects Bay Area transit agencies

New funding could help complete transformative mega-projects

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, providing $550 billion in new funding, or $1.2 trillion total, to upgrade the nation’s roads, rails, waterworks, and power systems.

The bill’s impact on the Bay Area’s transportation network could be profound, providing funding for transformative mega-projects as well as countless small improvements to local streets, transportation officials say. While environmental activists have criticized the bill’s 80-20 split between highway and mass transit funding, there will likely be ample opportunities for regional planning agencies like the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission to use highway funds for transit, bike and pedestrian improvements.

However, all of that is contingent upon resolving a dispute between California and the U.S. Department of Labor, which for now is holding up $9.5 billion in transportation funds to the state. Transit agencies are projecting confidence that the dispute will soon be resolved. “BART staff have been in communication with a number of stakeholders about this issue and we have been advised the FTA will continue to do business as usual,” BART spokesperson James Allison wrote in an email. “We have the highest level of confidence this issue will be worked out at the federal level without an impact to BART projects and our efforts to seek grant funding.”

So how much transportation money can the Bay Area expect from the infrastructure bill, and which projects will it fund? While it’s still too early for specifics, transit officials are starting to plan.

The Bay Area will get a 56 percent increase in formula funding automatically distributed to MTC, which will then dole out the money for specific transit and highway projects. All told, MTC expects to have $4.5 billion in federal funds to work with over the next five years, according to spokesperson John Goodwin.

Certain highway funds “give regions quite a bit of discretion in terms of how funds are invested,” Goodwin says. Even funding that is very explicitly meant for highways can be used to fund transit projects like express lanes for buses and carpools, as well as bike and transit-only lanes.

“Some other metro areas might put most STP and CMAQ funding (two flexible highway programs) into highways, whereas a region such as the Bay Area might put the majority into transit, bike, and pedestrian improvements,” Goodwin says.

In addition, the bill includes $140 billion in grant programs for which Bay Area projects can compete. Major projects where “we compete very well,” Goodwin says, include the reconstruction of Highway 37 in the North Bay and the completion of the Downtown Extension of Caltrain. Someday, the funds could help along high-speed rail find its way into the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco. The overall Caltrain modernization program could be a major beneficiary, which will electrify the rail line by 2024, eliminate many grade crossings, and someday allow Caltrain to run at BART-like frequencies.

In a statement, BART General Manager Bob Powers said money from the bill could help fund a modernized train control system that will allow trains to run closer together through the Transbay Tube. It will also fund disability upgrades.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato wrote in an email that the bill will help the agency fund street safety improvements, and vehicle and infrastructure repairs. She emphasized that the bill would not wipe away the agency’s “structural deficit,” and that a more stable funding source is needed.

California High Speed Rail, which is currently under construction in the Central Valley, has identified over $50 billion in grants that it is competitive for, not including an additional $10 billion earmarked specifically for high-speed rail in the reconciliation bill currently being debated in Washington. It’s too early to tell which projects the rail line will seek funding for, spokesperson Michele Boudreau wrote in an email, with grant programs still being structured and continued uncertainty about state funding. The agency needs new funding sources to link its under-construction tracks in the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Southern California.

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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