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Will Caltrain Electrification Win Out Despite the California GOP?

Commuters in San Jose lining up to board Caltrain. The modernization project is expected to help the railroad carry 40,000 more passengers in the years ahead. Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

The electrification of commuter rail service between San Jose and San Francisco was all but ready to begin construction when Donald Trump's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, pulled the rug out from under the project earlier this month.

Chao delayed signing a $637 million federal grant agreement, responding to Republican state lawmakers looking to kill the tangentially related California High-Speed Rail project. The delay isn't a minor inconvenience -- with contract deadlines looming, it could hike costs and kill the badly needed modernization of regional rail in one of the country's fastest-growing job markets.

A cheaper alternative, switching to electric locomotives, is no substitute for full electrification, which not only enables faster acceleration but is also essential for the transition to level boarding, notes Adina Levin at Green Caltrain.

Local officials are trying to adjust on the fly to salvage the project, Levin reports:

At Thursday’s Local Policymaker Working Group, Caltrain government affairs staffer Casey Fromson said that the agency was negotiating with its contractors to extend the March 1 deadline locking in the offers to electrify the line and purchase electric rail cars. If the deadline isn’t modified, Caltrain would need to renegotiate the prices and terms, putting the project at risk.

As readers likely know, the project is under pressure because Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao deferred approving the high-ranked project to wait for the Trump Administration budget. [Editor's note: A budget outline is expected to be released today and include broad cuts to make way for increased military spending.]

The Local Policy Maker Working Group is a body with representatives from all of the cities on the Caltrain line that weighs in on topics relating to Caltrain modernization and the blended system with high speed rail. Live tweets from the meeting are storified here.

Thursday’s meeting was hosted by the High Speed Rail Authority, with CHSRA CEO Jeff Morales in town and presiding. Morales declared his strong support for Caltrain electrification and expressed confidence that the threatened projects would continue; “big projects survive many near-death experiences.” The authority showed a video illustrating how 80% of the 1000 construction jobs in the Central Valley are held by local workers, reducing unemployment in the area. On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown proposed the High Speed Rail project -- along with flood protection and highway projects in the Central Valley as infrastructure projects for President Trump’s budget, countering California’s Central Valley reps efforts to harm High Speed Rail.

Streetsblog San Francisco reports a petition is circulating to save Caltrain funds. Meanwhile, Streetsblog California says the reporting that set off this controversy -- an L.A. Times story about CAHSR -- was "irresponsible."

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