Gov. Jerry Brown asks Trump administration to reverse decision to withhold rail grant

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A federal grant to convert Caltrain from diesel to electric trains is held up in a political battle. (Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the Trump Administration to reverse itself on a key decision to withhold a $647-million grant for a state passenger rail project, a request that comes two weeks after other California Democrats waded into the fray.

In a letter this week to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Brown asserted that on its merits the grant is “an open and shut case.”

The Transportation Department notified the state on Feb. 18 that it was deferring the grant, which is intended to pay for a 50-mile electrical power system that both the Caltrain commuter rail system and the future high-speed rail system would use from San Jose to San Francisco.

The grant, which normally might move through the federal channels with little notice, became politically charged through its association with the controversial bullet train project.

All 14 of California’s Republican members of the House asked Chao to hold up the grant until an audit could be conducted of the state’s troubled high-speed rail project’s finances.

While electrification would allow Caltrain to replace its diesel locomotives with electric trains, it is also a crucial step for the future of the bullet train. The state’s rail authority offered to give $713 million toward the project, money that would be taken out of bond funds earmarked for the bullet train.

The request by the Republican House members and the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House has created a political dynamic that almost nobody had contemplated, certainly not the state’s Democrats.

Until Trump’s election in November, the state’s Republican delegation lacked any real power to influence federal funding of the bullet train, which they strongly oppose.

But now the state’s 14 Republican members are exerting considerable power, given that they constitute the third-largest Republican delegation in the House after Texas and Florida. And Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has established a close relationship with Trump. McCarthy has called the project a boondoggle.

“Obviously, what has happened is a huge curve ball,” said Jim Earp, a longtime supporter of the high-speed rail project and a member of the California Transportation Commission. “I hope calmer head prevail and the funding goes through.”

It hasn’t helped the state’s case that there is not a single Republican in the Bay Area whose district might benefit from the grant.

Chao’s decision in mid-February was sharply criticized by many of California’s Democrats, including Sen. Diane Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the Transportation Department was holding the project hostage in an effort to attack the bullet train. The Caltrain goes through her district.

Their protests appeared to have had no effect, and whether they were even heard is unclear.

In a handwritten note on the one-page letter that Brown sent this week, he wrote, “Can we discuss this on the phone?”

Brown’s office declined to say why he asked for the phone call, as opposed to having his staff set up such a call with Chao.

“By electrifying the line, we can run more trains, cut commute times, save fuel costs, improve air quality, reduce noise and ease traffic congestion,” Brown wrote.

The letter that disclosed the deferral of the grant said it would have to be part of the future federal budget, meaning it could be stretched until later this year or longer. And if the grant is held up until a high-speed rail audit is done, that would further complicate the timetable, since audits can take years.

Caltrain had said any significant delays could jeopardize the project and expose it to penalties to firms already under contract. Earlier this week, Caltrain said it had reached an agreement with the contractors, led by Balfour Beatty and Stadler US, to extend the expected start date of project from March 1 to June 30.

It is not clear that is enough time. The federal budget year does not start until Oct. 1, though the deliberations over spending decisions would normally be made earlier.

So far, Chao has given no hint whether the grant is dead or may be revived. The audit being sought by the Republicans is based largely on concerns that the project’s cost is beginning to grow sharply.

In their letter asking for the grant delay, the House members cited a risk assessment by the Federal Railroad Administration, a part of the Transportation Department, that said the cost of just the first segment in the Central Valley could jump by as much as 50%.

High-speed rail officials have said that the assessment was not a finding and that they don’t agree with the projection. The Times disclosed the existence of the estimate in January.

Another complicating factor is that the grant was approved by Carolyn Flowers, chief of the Federal Transit Agency, two days before the end of the Obama Administration. Two week later, Flowers took a job at Los Angeles-based Aecom, an engineering firm that will be providing project management services for the electrification project.

Caltrain has defended the electrification project, saying it will allow it to meet sharply growing demand through Silicon Valley.

Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett noted that the system serves 65,000 riders daily and that the project would create thousands of jobs.

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