Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Seriously, Mr. Denham?

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You want to kill yet another chance to bring U.S. passenger rail into the 21st Century? Play a disingenuous game of smoke and mirrors by attempting to associate the object of your loathing to something else that has only little to do with it, and try to kill it as well.

That’s exactly what House Railroads Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham, the California Republican who has made destruction of the California High Speed Rail Program his life’s crusade, has done. On Feb. 7, he and all 13 of his fellow California GOP colleagues sent a letter to newly installed U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao requesting that the Trump Administration rescind nearly $650 million in funding for the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project, which is a major component of the Caltrain Modernization Program.

The strategy, as we see it, is to position Caltrain Electrification as the first step in killing off California HSR. The two projects are entirely separate, despite what the California Republican delegation wants you to believe. Hopefully, Denham’s disgusting game of dominoes won’t succeed.

Ever the diplomat, Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett issued the following statement on Feb. 8:

“Electrification must move forward.

“Caltrain is on the cusp of accomplishing a 25-year-old vision to modernize the corridor and replace the system's aging diesel equipment with high performance electric trains that will increase capacity and improve service on one of the nation's fastest growing commuter rail corridors.

“For decades, lack of sufficient funding had put this vision out of reach, but over the last several years Caltrain has worked with our local, regional, state and federal partners to make significant progress and overcome tremendous challenges.

“Ballot measures have been passed, funding agreements have been signed, legislation has been approved, lawsuits have been won and contracts have been awarded.

“Now, a new challenge must be overcome. The Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP) hinges on execution of a $647 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Core Capacity program that will be matched with more than $1.3 billion in secured local, regional, and state commitments.

“Since 2005, Caltrain ridership has quickly outpaced the system’s capacity as commuters have increasingly relied on the service to connect to some of the world’s most innovative and fastest-growing companies. Today, Caltrain provides a much-needed alternative to the heavily congested U.S. 101 freeway, but the system’s peak hour service is over maximum capacity, with many trains exceeding 125% of available seats.

“The Electrification Project is an opportunity to increase the capacity of the system and transform the way Peninsula residents experience transit. Caltrain is already the mobility option of choice for over 65,000 daily riders. By connecting our communities with more service to more stations and reducing travel times, electrification will make Caltrain even more attractive, equipping the system to accommodate more riders and providing significant relief to drivers on our busy local streets and roads and our increasingly congested freeways.

“Last year, Caltrain awarded contracts to advance work on the project, but construction cannot start without the investment that is awaiting approval by the new Administration. Time is of the essence. For the project to move forward as planned, the Administration must approve the grant prior to March 1. Any delay would result in costly penalties and cost increases that may threaten the viability of the project.

“We are at a critical juncture in Caltrain’s 150-year history. Electrification is the most transformative opportunity this corridor has ever undertaken and it offers unique economic, environmental and mobility benefits that will have an impact not just in our region but across the country. Federal investment in this project will create more than 9,600 jobs here in the Bay Area and spread throughout the nation in places like Salt Lake City, Utah; Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; Hudson, Wisc.; Littleton, Colo.; and [others]. It will create over $2.5 billion in economic value and address one of the region’s principal barriers to economic growth by eliminating more than 619,000 daily vehicle miles from the region’s roadways.

“These are some of the reasons that members of the Bay Area’s Congressional delegation and our region’s largest employers are pushing back strongly against calls by some to deny funding for the project. With their help, and support from a broad coalition of support from around the state and the nation, we look forward to providing the communities we serve with the rail system they deserve.

“Caltrain has been planning for the electrification project since the 1990s and the PCEP has received broad support from the business community, labor and environmental groups, regional transportation advocacy groups, local, state, and federal elected officials.

“In September 2016, Caltrain awarded two contracts, one to a contractor to install the infrastructure to electrify the corridor, the other to a contractor to build and deliver high-performance electric [multiple-unit] commuter rail trains.

“A Limited Notice to Proceed (LNTP) has been issued to those contractors to advance design of the project. A Full Notice to Proceed (NTP) must be issued by March 1, 2017, in order to maintain the terms of the contracts and avoid costly penalties and project delays. Before an NTP can be issued, PCEP must receive the $647 million Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the FTA Core Capacity grant program.

“Caltrain has secured all local, regional, state, and Federal non-Core Capacity funds for the project. The only funding that is needed is $647 million from the FTA Core Capacity program.”

Back to Denham. Why is he so hell-bent on killing California HSR that he’s willing to destroy Caltrain’s program? As far as we can tell, his top political donors aren’t companies or individuals who would benefit from the HSR system not being built. A few Class I railroads are among them. The HSR system, except for possibly some first-mile/last-mile right-of-way, will be on dedicated track—no freight train interference, which is exactly what railroads want. So seriously, Congressman, shut off the standard political rhetoric and tell us the real reason why you dislike fast, efficient high-speed trains. You head the Railroad Subcommittee. Shouldn’t you be an advocate for state-of-the-art passenger rail? Shouldn’t you want an HSR system in your state? What’s your point?

Believe me, it’s got nothing to do with “wasting taxpayer dollars.” That’s a tired old BS argument with little or no relevance when you take into account the trillions that have been spent on other things that have only resulted in death, destruction and further destabilization of already-destabilized areas of the world.

Our country needs to invest in HSR and other modern technologies, for societal as well as economic and environmental reasons. We are very far behind the rest of the world in passenger rail. We cannot afford not to invest. Our taxpayer dollars would be better invested in public transportation, education, health care , space exploration, electric automobiles, solar, wind and hydro energy, R&D in numerous areas, and hundreds of other programs that would create jobs and improve our quality of life. We’ve been experiencing a brain drain for years, and Trump is widening the sieve.

Where has our imagination gone? Our dreams? We attained John F. Kennedy’s bold vision of reaching the moon by the close of the 1960s, and then just sat back. We don’t think big anymore. We don’t do great things. We elect a profoundly narcissistic President whose chief strategist is a white supremacist, whose press secretary is a rabid attack dog and whose chief “counselor” is living on another planet. A President who wants to close our borders and shut out people who are trying to escape terrorism—not conduct it—and make a better life for themselves and contribute something; to ignore the fact that this is a global economy; and to stifle free trade. A President who . . . .

Oh, what’s the point of continuing? It’s just so very, very sad.

Is Jeff Denham content with latching onto the Trump train to this week’s Saturday Night Live parody or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver?

We hope that Elaine Chao—an immigrant whose personal story embodies what the United States is all about—will rise above the thick layer of pollution that has settled on Washington D.C. and dismiss attempts to derail the very types of projects her boss says he wants to do—with the possible exception of the one for which the Mexican government will amass a stack of unpaid bills.

I wonder what her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) thinks of this mess. There are signs that he disagrees with Trump's plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure.

From a recent Fortune magazine article: "There are also real political headwinds facing any Trump infrastructure plan. In a preview of what could be ongoing struggles with a legislative branch now dominated by Republicans who often have battled with their own candidate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said infrastructure is a low-priority for the Senate."

And here’s a Washington Monthly headline: “McConnell Says No to Infrastructure Spending as a Priority.”
 

 

William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.

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