© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What does Trump mean for transportation in the Bay Area?

Eli Wirtschafter
Caltrain's diesel-powered trains sit at 4th & King Station in San Francisco

President Trump has promised to rebuild America’s transportation network. He’s also signed an executive order saying he’ll take away funding from sanctuary cities -- places like San Francisco and Oakland that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

So what could the policies of the new administration mean for Bay Area transportation?

Threats to Caltrain and High-speed rail

We got one hint of where things could be headed last week, when the Trump administration delayed a decision on a $647 million grant, throwing a major hurdle in front of Caltrain and California’s bullet train project.

Randy Rentschler, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, says he’s never heard of a case “where a project has got this close to getting a full-funded grant agreement where it wasn’t granted.”

The federal grant would support the electrification of the Caltrain line along the Peninsula, upgrading and increasing the capacity of a rail system that still runs on pollutant-heavy diesel.

Although the grant is requested by Caltrain, it is also critical to plans for high-speed rail.

The bullet trains are meant to travel along the same tracks as Caltrain. They need electricity to operate. For that reason, the California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to help pay for Caltrain’s electrification.

Caltrain worked with Federal Transit Administration for two years to secure a grant to cover the last third of the $2 billion electrification project.

The Obama administration approved the grant, just days before Trump took office. But Congress is given 30 days to review the grant before the Department of Transportation makes it official.

In that time, California’s Republican representatives in the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Elaine Chao, who was about to be confirmed as the new Secretary of Transportation.

The representatives expressed skepticism about the high-speed rail project, which is projected to cost more than 40 percent more than when voters approved it in 2008.

The letter asked Chao to defer the electrification grant “until a full and complete audit of the [high-speed rail] project and its finances can be conducted.”

Secretary Chao could have approved the grant on Feb. 17. Instead, the department announced that the grant was deferred, and would be announced later as part of Trump’s budget proposal. That pushes the decision weeks or months away.

Meanwhile, Caltrain is ready to start construction on the electrification project this summer. Caltrain officials say that if they don’t have the funding by March 1, they’ll have to delay their contractors, and costs will rise.

Caltrain spokesperson Seamus Murphy says “it may be that a decision to defer is also a decision to kill the Caltrain electrification project.”

Caltrain has started a petition to the White House to get the grant approved. A group of Silicon Valley business leaders are also mobilizing to rescue the electrification project, which they say is critical to the future of the region.

It’s possible they’ll get their wish. Caltrain electrification remains broadly popular. Even the Republicans who asked for the grant to be delayed don’t oppose Caltrain electrification on its own. They object to its link to high-speed rail.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said in a written statement that “there has been a longtime need in modernizing Caltrain” but that the “high-speed rail project is inherently flawed and under its current business plan, the project deserves no Federal funding.”

Emphasis on public-private partnerships

Progressives from Governor Jerry Brown to Senator Bernie Sanders have found common ground with President Trump over the need to repair and rebuild America’s infrastructure.

“The Trump campaignstated that they wanted to invest in America,” says Rentschler, the MTC spokesperson. “Count me in. Count us in for that.”

But Rentschler says that “there’s been no detail” offered by Trump beyond the idea that the infrastructure package should be a trillion dollars.

The Trump team has emphasized public-private partnerships. The infrastructure plan offered by his campaign called for tax breaks to private companies that invest in public infrastructure. It advocated this private spending as a way to pump money into infrastructure without much direct government spending.

However, only infrastructure projects that charge a fee to users can attract private investment. That leaves out much of the public transportation network.

Rentschler says enticing the private sector “can do a lot,” but it’s “only going to get you so far.”

“You’re not going to fix the potholes and improve most public transportation” through private financing," says Rentschler. “They’re public for a reason.”

Secretary Chao echoed President Trump in her confirmation hearing, calling to “unleash the potential for private investment in our nation’s infrastructure.”

In an otherwise non-confrontational hearing, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) tried to pin down whether Chao and Trump “support a transportation package that includes direct federal spending,” not only private investment.

Chao paused for a moment before answering, “I believe the answer is yes.”

An unofficial document shows 50 infrastructure projects that the Trump administration could choose to prioritize. The list was provided to Trump’s transition team by a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.

Only two projects on the list are based in California, and both relate to delivering renewable energy.

A plan for Texas high-speed rail made the list, but not high-speed rail for California.

Will sanctuary cities still get transportation funding?

President Trump signed an executive order saying he’ll strip funding from sanctuary jurisdictions — places that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Most cities in the Bay Area have declared sanctuary policies.

About nine percent of Bay Area transportation dollars are projected to come from the federal government in the next decade or so. That’s smaller than most areas because the Bay Area funds a lot of transportation locally. Still, the number represents billions of dollars that would be hard to replace.

“Every bus people ride every day, every rail car that they ride… all of that stuff is substantially paid by the federal government,” says Rentschler.

Sanctuary cities are already challenging the constitutionality of Trump’s executive order.

Dennis Herrera, the city attorney for San Francisco, has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, using some of the same arguments that conservatives used to resist Obamacare.

Herrera said in a press conference announcing the lawsuit that “the federal government can’t put a financial gun to the head of state and local governments,” citing a 2012 Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act.

“That remains true no matter who is in charge in Washington, D.C.,” says Herrera.

The easiest portion of that for the Trump administration to target, if they chose to, are the large discretionary grants like Caltrain electrification.

Another local project applying for federal funding is the BART extension to San Jose. BART is considering calling itself a sanctuary transit system. If transportation funding became politicized, the outcome for the BART extension would be something to watch for.

However, large discretionary grants represent a small proportion of overall federal support for local transportation. Most federal transportation dollars by law are distributed relatively evenly across the country.

Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener, who was recently a San Francisco supervisor, is concerned that the Republican majority in congress will threaten overall investment in transportation.

“They don't believe in government, they don't believe in public investment, they certainly don't believe in public transportation,” says Wiener.

Despite Trump’s stated support for infrastructure, Wiener says, “I'm not holding my breath for the federal government to do more. And I hope I'm proven wrong.”