CA Republicans’ Attack on High-Speed Rail Would Hurt Existing Transit

Replacing Caltrain's diesel engines with electric ones would bring immediate air quality benefits. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Replacing Caltrain's diesel engines with electric ones would bring immediate air quality benefits. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday that all fourteen of California’s Republican members of Congress signed a letter [PDF] to incoming U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to refrain from giving final approval to funding the electrification of Caltrain, a commuter line serving the Bay Area. But the project they want to kill is not the long-sought modernization of Caltrain: they are aiming at high-speed rail, which would ultimately use the same rails as Caltrain in the Bay Area.

The electrification project is a way to bring immediate greenhouse gas emission benefits to a corridor that will eventually be served by high-speed rail. Using old diesel engines, Caltrain currently provides more than 60,000 daily trips between San Jose and San Francisco. Electrification would not only reduce emissions immediately but allow Caltrain to add more trains and boost service along this very busy corridor.

The L.A. Times quotes the letter as saying that “providing additional funding at this time to the authority would be an irresponsible use of taxpayers dollars.” But a response from California Democratic Representatives [PDF], who at 38 far outnumber the Republican delegation, calls this a “material misstatement of fact”—that is, a lie.

The funds, in fact, are sought by the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, not by the High-Speed Rail Authority, and are aimed at improving Caltrain, not building high-speed rail. Cleaning up emissions from the existing transit line, and being able to boost capacity on the line long before high-speed rail enters the picture is, the letter points out, in keeping with the intent of the FTA’s Core Capacity Program, through which the funding is being sought.

The Times article is by Ralph Vartabedian, an untrustworthy incessant high-speed rail critic, who recently reported, inaccurately, on a “confidential FRA report” that supposedly called into question the financial fitness of the High-Speed Rail Program. Streetsblog, among others, called him out on his mistake, but his article seems to have had its intended effect. Clearly the Republicans who wrote to Chao read at least that far. Vartabedian quotes from the letter:

In light of the new revelations from the confidential FRA report, we request no further monies be granted to the [California High-Speed Rail] Authority or the state of California for high speed rail until a full and complete audit of the project and its finances can be conducted and those finding be presented to the public.

The grant agreement is currently under a 30-day review, which ends on February 18. If the DOT declines to approve it, the Caltrain electrification project may be dead for now.

All this comes amidst saber-rattling on all sides, with Trump threatening to pull funding from California, calling the state “out of control”, and California leaders shooting back. “California has the most manufacturing jobs in the nation. Our state grows a quarter of the nation’s food. Our minimum wage increase has not only helped our poorest workers, it has boosted the economy while unemployment continues to drop. We have not only balanced our budget, we have had surpluses and put money away for future economic downturns – something we hope the President’s policies won’t hasten,” wrote Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in a statement. “If this is what Donald Trump thinks is ‘out of control,’ I’d suggest other states should be more like us.”

TransForm has created a petition to ask Chao to approve Caltrain’s grant, which can be found here.

Why are California state representatives taking advantage of uncertainty at the federal level to stab high-speed rail in the back? Below is the full list of California’s congressional Republicans who signed the letter. Californians supportive of Caltrain electrification and high-speed rail may want to contact these electeds to let them know where you stand:

  • Ken Calvert, 42nd District
  • Paul Cook, 8th District
  • Jeff Denham, 10th District
  • Duncan D. Hunter, 50th District
  • Darrell Issa, 49th District
  • Steve Knight, 25th District
  • Doug LaMalfa, 1st District
  • Kevin McCarthy, 23rd District
  • Tom McClintock, 4th District
  • Devin Nunes, 22nd District
  • Dana Rohrabacher, 48th District
  • Ed Royce, 39th District
  • David Valadao, 21st District
  • Mimi Walters, 45th District
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  • mmlowe

    Fresno is a very large Metropolitan area in need of some positive Economic growth. Let’s face it. Greater Fresno is DISMAL. Yet it’s elected officials are trying to kill the high speed rail. This defies logic. If they are successful Fresno gets to remain an isolated area flowing backward to NO where.

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  • Jason Nietupski

    Maybe we need to target them. The election is 18 months away. Focus on Denham of Modesto. He is the weakest. Used to be a Democratic seat. Actions have consequences. It amazes me how these 14 republicans can betray your own State. Shameful! They all need to be voted out.

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  • The push for electrfication should be focused on solving the health problems with breathing the 40 different carcinogenic gases those dirty old diesel locomotives spew out. All of us can smell that awful Caltrain stench long after a train left the station. Cumulatively those diesel locomotives are dirtier and more toxic than a coal driven power plant running up and down people back yards along the peninsula. Adding insult to lung injuries, we’re spending much more money to operate and maintain these dirty old diesel locomotives that run significantly slower and louder than their electric counterparts.

    Choosing to continue to use slow, expensive, loud and stupid diesel locomotives instead of upgrading to faster cleaner and cheaper electric locomotives doesn’t make any financial or moral sense. The politicians that are opposing Caltrain electrification are only doing so because they want the people of the Bay Area to suffer both economically and physically for no reason other than their hatred towards us.

    The entire trans-Siberian railroad that runs across 10 time zones, along with most of the rail lines in the rest of the world are electric because it’s significantly more efficient and cheaper to operate and maintain. The only argument against Caltrain electrification is ignorance and hatred.

    • No. The argument is about how electrifying Caltrain—which is a good idea—is related to the dumb high-speed rail project. California should dump that and pay to electrify Caltrain instead.

      • It doesn’t matter what your “argument” is. The end result of this will be potentially scrapping Caltrains electrification, which will have devastating impacts on the quality of life of everyone who rides Caltrain or breathes the air anywhere around the Caltrain corridore. The IER and proposals for Caltrain electrification do allow for future HSR, but they do stand on their own even if HSR never happens. That’s because switching from dirty old diesel locomotives to faster cleaner and cheaper electric locomotives vastly reduces operations costs allowing for fewer trains to carry more passengers faster for less money.

        This isn’t about facts, this is about republicans wanting to make people in the Bay Area suffer at any costs. It’s really psychotic that people would go to such great lengths as to force our government to spend more money to run dirty old slow diesel locomotives that we know are poisoning the air hundreds of thousands of people are breathing each day.

        • Of course it doesn’t matter what either of us argue here. But the whole point of debating policy issues is to at least try to arrive at sensible policies regardless of how we may differ on what that means.

          To me it makes sense for the Democrats in charge of California to dump a dumb, botched-from-the-beginning high-speed rail project and instead raise the money to electrify Caltrain, which I agree is a good idea.

      • Eric

        That is exactly what they’re doing and what the state Republicans are trying to block.

  • This may be the only issue that Republicans are right about. The high-speed rail project was poorly-conceived and unfunded by Proposition 1A that was passed by only 2% margin in 2008.

    Just as important, the high-speed rail authority has already committed $700 million to electrify Caltrain, which makes it disingenuous to argue that electrifying Caltrain has nothing to do with the high-speed rail project.

    On the other hand, I think electrifying Caltrain is a good idea. But it should be done without high-speed rail money. Governor Brown should kill the high-speed rail project and instead get money for Caltrain.

    President Obama and the Democrats made a big mistake on the high-speed rail project, and I say that as a Democrat who voted for him twice.

    • Richard

      I wonder how much has been spent to date.
      From a California point of view is that if the project is killed, any available funds on hand need to first go back to pay back the federal government’s grants. The feds money is last in, first out and would need to be repaid. There probably wouldn’t be anything left to pay back the state bonds, so then CA is sitting with 10 billion in debt and some uncompleted rail sections in the central valley.
      So if the CAHSR is killed, there probably wont be any more money coming from the state for pet projects like Caltrain and Metrolink improvements.

      • Thus far, only about $3bn has been spent and all of that money is from the Federal grants, which amount to ~$3.5bn in total. Those $3.5bn are producing about 120 miles of civil works to prepare the right-of-way. Furthermore, the State can’t just walk away and leave an industrial wasteland because one of the stipulations for receiving those Federal funds was that if the project is eventually killed, it must be left usable by Amtrak which it currently is not. (Here’s what is currently underway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lsiYkyEW0w.)

        However, abandonment is highly unlikely since the State still has access to the $10bn in bonds and about $400mn/year in cap-and-trade monies (through 2020), which should be enough to finish the Bakersfield-to-San Jose segment that is planned for initial operations.

        • The cap and trade legislation is being litigated and the legislature may not renew it. Even if it is renewed and survives the litigation, the result without any more federal money is exactly what critics warned about years ago: the project is on life-support, draining money from the state’s general fund. The annual payment on the $9 billion in bonds would be $647 million a year. The project was fatally flawed from the start, since there was no guaranteed source of money to build the system.
          http://www.lao.ca.gov/ballot/2008/1A_11_2008.aspx

          And if/when it’s ever built, the implementing legislation forbids any public money to operate the system, since voters were promised that those who used the system would pay for it, not the state’s taxpayers.

          • Yes, cap-and-trade is up in the air, but there are now Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature and even interests like the WSPA now are expressing interest in seeing the program continued, so I would be surprised if it is not ultimately reaffirmed.

            In regards to ongoing funding, the State still has access to the $10bn in bonds which they haven’t started selling yet and the aforementioned cap-and-trade funds. That’s a total of at least $15bn, which should be enough to get to San Jose. Additionally, for better or worse, Trump’s infrastructure proposal as stated would also be extremely beneficial for the CAHSR project. It promises a return of up to 87 cents of tax credit for every dollar invested into “infrastructure”, so if that comes to pass, I would imagine that quite a number of interested parties would step forward to provide funding.

          • JustJake

            Could you explain your connection and or relationship to HSR? With the sheer volume of comments you post with details, is there anything beyond a personal interest involved?

          • No, I just go on the website and read the documents.

    • So if the Feds withhold the money, it just spites Caltrain. If anything, that frees up $700mn more for the rest of the CAHSR system which could speed up its construction. So go ahead, cancel the Caltrain electrification. It’ll just bring about the rest of the project faster.

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  • I see this, as in part, an attempt by suburban/rural Republican representatives (almost all are suburban/rural) to stick it to urban areas.

    • Flubert

      That’s a vast over-generalisation. Almost every major city in the South, Texas and Arizona voted for Trump, as did many mid-sized Mid-Western cities.

      And anyway, south of the 22nd Street station in SF, CalTrain stops are all in suburban areas. HSR is located 99% in rural and suburban areas.

      • Did you read the article, or are you just trolling? It had nothing to do with other states. The main point of the article is that by going after HSR with a blunt instrument, Republicans were harming Caltrain, which though it runs through suburban areas, is serving the urban areas at both ends, San Francisco and San Jose.

        • Flubert

          Republicans are typically more sceptical about vast transit schemes, and the risk that HSR is a multi-billion dollar boondoggle is non-zero.

          There are over 20 stops on the CalTrain line and I’d characterize only 3 of them as urban. If you took CalTrain you’d see that it is far from people just going from one end to the other

          • Caltrain is not a vast transit scheme, it is a successful system used by thousands. Why do you keep going back to HSR when the purpose or effect of the Republican letter was to harm Caltrain? I do use Caltrain, and my observation says the end points are the most prominent.

          • Well no, the stated effect is to harm CAHSR, but the actual effect will be to harm Caltrain. If they succeed at this, Caltrain is the only one that will lose out as the CAHSR business plan has an IOS through San Jose, not San Francisco. It might even put $700mn back into the rest of the CAHSR program, which will finish it up quicker, at which point they can use revenues to get to SF. Penny wise, pound foolish.

          • Flubert

            Read the article. The two are related,

          • John Murphy

            Most of the “suburban” areas you denigrate are more dense than a lot of american cities.

          • Flubert

            So Dan is confused about the difference between “urban” and “suburban”?

          • John Murphy

            I think he’s just confused. This is all about CAHSR, which the rural areas hate, under the mistaken belief that they are actually the ones paying for it.

      • Richard

        In your fantasy world perhaps.

        Hillary won Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Austin, and San Antonio. She lost the states, but won the cities.

        • Flubert

          All I know is that Hilary lost, and some folks are still struggling to understand that, let alone come to terms with it. Any more rationalizations?

          • Mike

            Sounds like all you know isn’t too much at all.

          • Flubert

            I know who won and who lost, so there’s that.

      • John Murphy

        the tracks are located in rural and suburban areas, but the key places served in a full buildout are LA and “The Bay Area”

        • Flubert

          For HSR that is probably most true. For CalTrain, it isn’t. Many people get on and off at the intermediate stations, otherwise they would not exist absent demand

      • mmlowe

        To Flaubert, I emphatically did not like Hillary. That said, the people of Fresno should be BEGGING for this train to bring 21st Century signs of life to that large he.. hole. And shame on their elected politicians to advocate otherwise.

  • Remember, the Republicans listed above are all about screwing over their own state. Like petulant toddlers, they will stew in their and others own poop just to make a point. They hate high-tech because of the globalization-realities that it entails. So screwing over the peninsula that houses it has an appeal to these luddites.

  • Let’s not mince words: this will only impact Caltrain, not HSR. The current HSR business plan calls for opening first to San Jose, so this has absolutely zero bearing on whether HSR will be able to start running on the IOS. When HSR is ready to go to SF, they’ll just electrify themselves at that point if it’s not yet done.

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