GOP targets California rail grants

Written by Railway Age Staff

California’s Congressional Republicans are calling on the Trump Administration to block $647 million in new grants for electrification on the Caltrain rail line between San Francisco and San Jose. This project, part of the Caltrain Modernization Program, is only loosely connected to the California High Speed Rail Authority San Francisco-Los Angeles High Speed Rail project.

The request by 14 GOP members in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reported by The Hill said that the money, following more than $3.5 billion in previous federal funding for construction of California HSR, would go to waste. The request did not say that Caltrain Modernization and California HSR are separate initiatives conducted by separate agencies.

In the letter, Republicans wrote, “We think providing additional funding at this time…would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars,” according to the report. Leading the move was Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Railroads Subcommittee.

“Denham has had it in for tthe California HSR project for years and now he’s probably jumping for joy that he has a better chance of realizing his dream of sending the project to the grave with the Trump Administration in power,” said one observer.

Said another, “The electrification of the commuter line from San Jose to San Francisco is a highly desirable element of Caltrain Modernization. It’s unfortunate it gets rolled into the HSR project skepticism.  Where politics is concerned, reason often loses.  Look at what happened in New Jersey in 2010. Gov. Chris Christie cancelled one of the most sensible and needed projects—two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, which was fully funded and already under construction. Prospects do not look good. Nevertheless, I can’t see why this is such good politics for Denham; there should be juicier targets.”

Yet another observation; “Go back to the pre-BART days, and check the news stories in the San Francisco Bay area newspapers regarding the BART system. The news stories predicted that no one would ride BART, and that it was a waste of money. The mentality of ‘we are Californians, we don’t ride trains, we drive cars’ seemed to prevail. Nowadays, you cannot find anyone who was opposed to BART, even in the counties (like San Mateo) that initially opted out of BART and are now paying plenty to bring BART to San Jose (San Mateo County) as soon as possible. Much the same can be said of Los Angeles, where MetroRail ridership has outpaced any ridership forecasts. LA Union Passenger Terminal, formerly a ‘ghost town’ except for a few Amtrak trains, now bustles with Metrolink commuter activity and passengers in the tens-of-thousands per day. So much for the naysayers. These are substantiated statistics.
“The naysayers will always be with us. They are the prophets of doom. If we had listened to them in the past, we would be illuminating our homes with larger candles.  While even the most avid proponent of high speed rail will admit that high speed rail is not ‘the sole answer’ to improving our mobility system, it is insane to continue to pretend that high speed rail has no part in our transportation system for a growing population, and California’s growth and density in the narrow strips of land where all the people actually live make it an ideal application for high speed rail. The three California Intercity passenger rail routes (Surfliner Corridor, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Corridor), once called ‘a pipedream,’ now carry 20% of all the Amtrak riders in the country (including the passengers on the busy Northeast Corridor). Further California ridership growth is hampered only by lack of faster services (more time competitive), more frequent service, and a direct LA connection, all of which the California high speed rail system will deliver.”

An audit by Chao’s office was also requested by the Republicans.

The state’s GOP has long opposed the HSR project, which is championed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who also has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump.

The California HSR project received billions in grant funding from the Obama Administration as part of the 2009 stimulus package and a 2010 omnibus appropriations measure. Almost $10 billion in bonds to fund the project was approved by voters in 2008. Since then the price tag has soared to $60 billion from $33 billion. In January a risk assessment by the Federal Railroad Administration found that for the first segment of the rail line, taxpayers could foot the bill for much more than first estimated.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Republican opposition to the rail project was endangering more than 9,600 jobs, and holding back modernization along the congested corridor between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. “It’s unfortunate that while Congressional Republicans continue to target the progress of California High Speed Rail with inaccuracies and innuendo, they also chose to take Caltrain electrification hostage,” said Pelosi spokesman Jorge Aguilar.

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