SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – The Trump administration has done an about-face and decided to provide the $650 million in federal funds to the Caltrain electrification project in the San Francisco Bay Area.
California Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will sign the previously crafted agreement, despite pulling the grant funding from the table in February and publicly questioning the usefulness of the infrastructure project as recently as last week.
“I’m pleased and thankful that Secretary Chao has agreed to sign the long-awaited grant agreement for Caltrain’s Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein. “This would have not been possible without the help of the local leaders who pushed for the project and my congressional colleagues who agreed to enact funding.”
The $2 billion project figures to phase out the diesel trains that run from just south of San Jose into San Francisco, replacing them with quieter, smoother, more energy-efficient electric trains.
In order to accomplish the task, Caltrain must electrify the stretch of track running from Gilroy to San Francisco.
“Electrifying Caltrain will pave the way to expand rider capacity, reduce emissions and improve service,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in statement. “I’d like to thank Secretary Chao, who didn’t let partisanship stand in the way of good policy, as well as our entire congressional delegation for their support.”
Chao initially pulled the grant in February, after a delegation of California Republicans – most from the Central Valley – sent her a letter decrying the project as a boondoggle of massive scale.
The letter conflated the Caltrain project with California’s high-speed rail project, which many of the state’s conservatives oppose due to the massive $68 billion price tag.
Central Valley congressional representatives like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, also oppose high-speed rail in California because the tracks are slated to traverse through their constituents’ land, in many cases dividing farms and ranches.
The Caltrain electrification project is separate from high-speed rail, but the California High-Speed Rail Authority does eventually plan on constructing a route from San Jose to San Francisco and early indications are that it will share track with Caltrain.
Therefore, the electrification project is indirectly important to the state’s high-speed rail project. But Feinstein said the grant addresses more immediate problems.
“Caltrain’s fleet of diesel trains are at the end of their useful life,” Feinstein said. “Now is the time to replace these outdated, dirty diesel trains with a cleaner, modern electric fleet.”
The grant will mean the federal government will provide nearly $650 million, roughly one-third of the amount needed, over the next five years.
Feinstein and others said intense lobbying by Silicon Valley officials and business owners, combined with pressure from the more liberal end of the Golden State’s congressional delegation – including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kamala Harris and Feinstein – cinched the deal.
The grant is also seen as a barometer for the Trump administration’s true appetite to take on transformative infrastructure projects. The president’s apparent disdain for California, a state he recently called “out of control,” had some predicting doom for the Caltrain project and perhaps even high-speed rail.
However, others have noted Trump has often lamented the state of the nation’s infrastructure and has pointed to the lack of high-speed rail numerous times on the campaign trail, and once since he’s been in office.
“We are very thankful to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and the Trump administration for recognizing the value that Caltrain electrification will create for the Bay Area and the nation by easing congestion in one of the country’s most economically productive regions and creating almost 10,000 American jobs in the process,” Caltrain CEO Jim Hartnett said.