Chances are, you ignore the federal budgetary process. If the esoteric language and shifting deadlines don’t drive you away, the decades-long timelines and internecine politics will. So it’s understandable you didn’t dig up the details when, last week, the Federal Transit Administration delayed a $637 million grant for Caltrain, the San Francisco Bay Area’s commuter rail system.
You should have, even if you’re not one of Caltrain’s 60,200 daily riders, or don’t live in the region, or even the state. By delaying this particular grant—which would electrify Caltrain’s rails, so trains can ditch diesel—the Trump Administration didn’t just deal a temporary blow to the health and economy of the Bay Area. It may have launched the opening salvo in what could be a war against public transit, with national consequences.
Whoever you are, here’s why you should follow this money.
You Ride the Caltrain
This one’s easy. “Electrification is a really basic upgrade to the railroad, which hasn’t been upgraded in 150 years,” says Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at SPUR, a Bay Area urban policy research and advocacy organization. For an already jam-packed rail system in a jam-packed region set to add 802,000 jobs by 2040, the benefit goes beyond curbing pollution from diesel locomotives.
Electric trains accelerate faster than diesel ones, cutting travel times between stops. Their rail cars each carry their own propulsion system, so hitching up a few more of them doesn’t slow the whole train down. In exchange for electricity, Caltrain promises more frequent service, shorter rides, and space for up to 25 percent more passengers.
You Ride the Tech Bus
Say you prefer commuting around the Bay Area aboard your employer’s plush, WiFi-ed private shuttle. You still want Caltrain to get that $637 million.
For one, the zappy stuff will make these trains quieter and less stinky, and reduce pollution in a region where transportation produces 40 percent of emissions. And while electrification certainly will not solve San Francisco’s horrifying traffic, it should mitigate the damage. Three out of five Caltrain riders own a car—meaning they’re choosing a train commute over a stop-start one. Better train service could mean more people riding instead of driving, and fewer vehicles for your cushy tech bus to crush on its way to campus.
Your company should care, too. “Our most important asset, our employees, are stalled in traffic, with longer and longer commutes that take longer and longer periods of time,” says Carl Guardino, who heads up the 400-member Silicon Valley Leadership Group and serves on the California Transportation Commission. “They’re increasingly frustrated about trying to live and work in Silicon Valley.” If the region doesn’t get this mobility mess sorted out quick, it might lose flashy (and wealthy) companies.
Oh, and this project might even save the region some $$. Adding trains means more fare revenue, especially since Caltrain is the rare system that serves major demand in both directions (city slickers who work in the valley, and suburbanites who toil in San Francisco).
You Live 400 Miles Away
Ah, the eternal NorCal-SoCal rivalry, in which San Franciscans wave their sanctimonious, carpal tunnel-ridden fists at Los Angeles and Angelenos … forget San Francisco exists. But pay attention, rest of California—this electrification’s for you, too. It’s a necessary step to completing that long-awaited, high-speed rail system from the top of the state to the bottom. “The future of California is cities, and cities connected by rail,” says Amin. “There’s no other way we can grow.”
Skipping around California could one day be as easy as traveling through Europe or Japan. Even the smoggy Central Valley—where Republican representatives have pushed hard against electrification and the statewide rail network—could benefit from emissions reductions.
You Live in an American City
Choo-choo: Here come the politics. The feds say they’ll take a closer look at the project as part of Trump’s 2018 budget. On the one hand, that’s NBD. “It’s a routine thing for new administration to call a halt to signing new major grant agreements that are going to bind them financially for the next four or five years until they can get their budget together,” says Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation who studies federal transportation funding.
On the other (and more sinister) hand, some advocates worry the DOT’s decision signals it will be be none too generous with big public transit projects. Especially since California had already lined up the bulk of what the $2 billion the electrification project will cost, and completed all the legal requirements.
“Having a separate funding program stop giving money to projects that have made it through statutory requirements should make people across the country very nervous,” says Amin. “This is a very worrisome precedent for public transit.”
Consider that the 2016 GOP platform suggested eliminating the federal transit program, from whence the electrification grant comes. Throw in fears that the new administration could play political hardball with sanctuary cities’ funding, and you’ve got a recipe for a public transit project pileup: in the Bay Area, sure, but also in New York (where the Second Avenue Subway grinds on), in Baltimore (where an expanded tunnel would let larger trains pass through the city), and in New Jersey cities, where officials hope to add rail service. (The DOT did not respond to a request for comment.)
Caltrain hasn’t run out of juice quite yet. But keep an eye on this drama, even if you live far away. Power outages tend to spread.