Sen. Dianne Feinstein urges Silicon Valley to fight Republicans on Caltrain funding
SUNNYVALE — Facing a threatened funding shortfall that could derail improvements to one of the Bay Area’s most critical commuter corridors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday exhorted a room filled with hundreds of Silicon Valley business leaders, elected officials and others to personally contact California’s 14-member GOP congressional delegation and tell them to stop blocking the electrification of Caltrain.
During a luncheon event hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group at Juniper Networks, a highly frustrated Feinstein told the audience that the $1.98 billion Caltrain upgrade from San Jose to San Francisco — packaged and ready to go — “is the only funding grant agreement that has been denied a signature by the secretary of transportation — and it’s because of a letter that was written by 14 different Republicans,” most of them from the Central Valley, Feinstein said.
While much of the electrification upgrade is being paid for by local, regional and state funds, the 15-year-long effort to modernize the aging rail system suffered a major blow in February. That’s when federal transit officials decided to withhold $647 million that Caltrain was counting on to start the electrification work.
The decision by the Federal Transit Administration came just weeks after California’s GOP congressional delegation — led by U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield — asked the Trump administration to block the funds to stop California’s controversial high-speed rail project.
McCarthy is adamantly opposed to California’s high-speed rail project and sent the letter to new U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
In it, he and the rest of California’s GOP delegation said the $647 million for electrifying Caltrain would go to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and he asked Chao to stop it — which she at least temporarily did.
The GOP delegation first wants an audit of the bullet train — which would run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and would use the electrified train’s infrastructure from San Jose to San Francisco. The High-Speed Rail Authority has invested $700 million in Caltrain’s electrification project.
“I just don’t understand his mentality,’’ Feinstein said of McCarthy. “This is such an important project, and it has one signature to get and the secretary of transportation moves ahead. Never before has a full funding agreement been treated in this manner.’’
Feinstein told the audience of about 400 that “we have our work cut out for us,’’ and she suggested that everyone present get a copy of the letter “and get in touch with those 14 Republicans…. And help us change their minds. This has nothing to do with the Central Valley.’’
In late March, more than 120 Silicon Valley business leaders fired off a letter to Trump and Chao, asking them to make good on federal promises for the allocation.
Feinstein appealed to the audience, underscoring the importance of the project to them and generations to come.
“This is your future — it’s your future and your future workforce’s future,’’ Feinstein told them. “Not to be able to upgrade the system when the money is there and all the work is done … makes no sense at all.’’
The FTA said it would make a final decision on the project once President Donald Trump releases his detailed budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1.
But Caltrain officials say the delay could have dire consequences for the $2 billion electrification project, which had a March 1 funding deadline. They have since reached agreements with two contractors to extend that deadline to begin work to June 30.
Caltrain said replacing the line’s diesel trains with cleaner electric ones would allow the agency to run longer and more frequent trains and boost daily riderships from 65,000 to 110,000 by 2040.
And supporters of the project say it also will achieve one of Trump’s major initiatives: creation of jobs. Caltrain has estimated the project would create 9,600 jobs in the Bay Area and throughout the country.
Without the electrification project, Bay Area leaders say, congestion on Bay Area roads will continue to increase. And Carl Guardino, CEO of the group that hosted the event, worries about the economic impact a major delay would have on the future of companies located along a large section of the Caltrain corridor, which he said generate 14 percent of the state’s GDP.
Ultimately, Feinstein believes, the state’s GOP delegation will realize the huge problem they are creating.
“Can you imagine what will happen on these freeways if Caltrain breaks down?’’ she told reporters following the event. “I’m very hopeful.’’
Feinstein’s hour-long talk — on everything from transportation to housing to H1-B visas — also addressed the possibility of a second San Francisco Bay crossing for BART, possibly from San Francisco Airport to Oakland Airport.
Back in 1979, Feinstein, said she didn’t expect such explosive growth and now regrets voting against a similar a project that would have created that second BART tunnel.
“And so the great learning experience for me in my work is that it’s not only the immediate thing, it’s the legacy we leave behind,” said the 83-year-old senator, who has still not said whether she will run for re-election next year. “It’s what we do today that matters 15, 20, 25 years from now that makes a difference and leaves a legacy.’’