Trump Promised to be The Infrastructure President. Just Not For One of America’s Strongest Economic Regions.
Last night before both halves of U.S. Congress, President Donald Trump promised us that “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.”
Yet in California, we have a shovel-ready transit project running down the spine of one of the country’s most economically vibrant regions, that will create 9,600 jobs across America.
Electrification may not sound sexy. But it is imperative for a region with transit infrastructure running at full or even above capacity. Three of the world’s six most valuable companies by market capitalization — Google, Facebook and Apple — sit within just a mile or few of Caltrain’s main stops.
Since 2010, the number of passengers per day that Caltrain carries has exploded from 34,120 to 62,416 last year. Without electrification, the system will not be able to expand beyond 100,000 passengers per day. This will worsen congestion on the 101 and 280 and weaken mass and public transit options for Bay Area residents and workers.
The contracts and funding for this were ready to go until California Republicans lobbied the Department of Transportation to hold off on confirming $647 million in funding earlier this month in order to thwart high-speed rail. Caltrain’s contracts were contingent on this funding being approved by today.
At the 11th hour yesterday, the train system was able to negotiate and extend the contracts until June 30 at a cost of $20 million, to give time for the administration to craft a budget. But if negotiations run beyond this, the project will either fall apart or Caltrain will have to re-negotiate all of those contracts at substantially higher costs beyond the $1.9 billion already required in total for the project.
The U.S. Senators and Congressional Representatives from the Bay Area already have this at the top of their priority list. But what California political leaders like Senator Dianne Feinstein and others have asked for — beyond their many other urgent priorities like protecting immigrants and health care and strategizing around U.S. Supreme Court hearings in three weeks — is a grassroots effort to drive the conversation in other parts of the country that are dependent on the jobs created by Caltrain.
Don’t Make Lame Excuses Just Because You Don’t Use Public Transit
“I can just drive down the 101.”
At peak traffic hours, Caltrain carries about as many passengers as half the lanes on 101.
A full lane of 101 runs about 1,400 to 2,500 cars per hour. Seventy five percent of those cars typically only have one passenger. In contrast, Caltrain handles 3,250 passengers during peak hours going in a single direction, according to SPUR, a regional thinktank focused on Bay Area urban planning, housing and transit.
It’s possible that one could double the capacity of a single lane on 101 if it were converted to a high-occupancy toll road, that charges solo drivers unless they have at least two additional passengers. Or if one lane of 101 was converted to buses and tech shuttles-only.
But this could prove politically difficult. Right now, there is only a mile or two of HOV lanes, or high-occupancy vehicle lanes, in all of San Mateo County, where Facebook is based.
“I don’t use Caltrain because I take the Google bus.”
Again, see above.
Buses still have to ride down the 101, which is a piece of government-created infrastructure — the highway. Increased Caltrain capacity will reduce upward congestion pressures down the peninsula highways and into the city of San Francisco, which now has the third-worst traffic of any major American city. Over the last decade, Bay Area congestion has skyrocketed by 84 percent, according to Caltrans.
Also, because the previous generation of Californians failed to invest in public and mass transit decades ago, a parallel system of privatized transit only available to employees of large corporations has grown in response to this. At 9.6 million annual boardings, private shuttles from Santa Cruz to Sacramento County handle roughly half of Caltrain’s capacity.
“Caltrain is for tech workers, not for the working-class.”
About one-quarter of Caltrain riders report household incomes of less than $60,000 and the system helps support the rest of the Samtrans bus system in San Mateo County. The system is also engaged in a fare equity study to figure out how to make Caltrain’s fares more accessible to different income levels.
But the bigger picture is that the enormous businesses that have emerged around privatized transit in the Bay Area today exist precisely because previous generations of Californians failed to invest in the region’s public systems.
In the early 1960s, San Mateo County decided to drop out of the BART system, which destroyed the opportunity to have a single mass transit system encircling the Bay. The argument was that the rail line underlying Caltrain, which was then run by Southern Pacific, was sufficient for daily commuters.
The impetus for ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles comes out of the Bay Area’s reverse Goldilocks problem, in which it is too dense for comfortable car commuting and not dense or politically unified enough for subway or deep mass transit investments.
This leads to a chicken-and-egg problem in which longtime property owners and Bay Area voters refuse to build more housing because they are concerned about traffic impacts. Without increased transit capacity, it will not be possible to add meaningful amounts of housing, at all income levels, to the Bay Area.
“Uber, Lyft and self-driving cars will make public transit obsolete.”
Public policy executives at both Lyft and Uber have been outspoken about how mass transit actually pairs well with ride-sharing and self-driving cars.
Then if autonomous vehicles are successful, the best estimates I’ve heard anecdotally from Bay Area transit policy makers is that they could bump highway capacity by 25 to 30 percent.
The more ambitious theoretical estimates arguing that highway capacity could double or triple with platooning require that all vehicles, if not at least 90 percent of them, are autonomous and networked. So you would have to wait for if and when human drivers are largely outlawed by state or federal regulations. This is not to mention the problem of induced demand, where increased capacity just fuels more demand, cancelling out congestion benefits.
If you’re a private individual or company, maybe it’s OK and even encouraged to bet on speculative technologies. But public systems don’t have this flexibility. They are obligated to consider the most optimistic and the most pessimistic scenarios.
Back in the 1960s when San Mateo and Marin County dropped out of BART, opponents of the system like Hillsdale real estate developer David Bohannon argued that fixed-line rail was an “obsolete method of transportation.” Ironically, Standard Oil Company, now known as Chevron today, supported BART even though it competed with its gasoline business because it knew that congestion would become impossible over the long-term.
It turned out that both highway and fixed-transit are necessary and, in fact, complementary.
Lastly, the other major cost of adding lanes to highways or building new systems like high-speed rail or the Hyperloop is real estate, or the land underneath any line. It’s just exceptionally expensive to buy a pipe of real estate between two major American cities. So, if you have it today, you might as well make the most of it.
“We should just fund it locally.”
About half of the funding for Caltrain electrification is coming from state, regional and local funding. But it’s challenging because after the California “taxpayer revolt” of the 1970s (which in turn fueled Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency), the previous generation of Californians passed ballot initiatives requiring two-thirds super-majority approval for any new revenue-generating taxes or major bonds.
This means that a small and vocal minority can derail badly-needed infrastructure improvements over the will of the majority. The typical campaign to raise bond funding for transit infrastructure takes several years to plan, market and pass.
Out of the 2,200 bond measures filed since 2001, four out of five garnered more than 55 percent of the vote, but failed to get a two-thirds supermajority vote because of the state’s high threshold.
Then, in the same way that California is a net donor state to the federal budget and remits more in taxes than it receives back in services or grants, the Bay Area also punches above its weight in California state tax revenues. The Bay Area counties support about 36 percent of the estimated $84 billion that the state will collect in personal income tax this year, even though we represent less than 17 percent of California’s population. Much of the wealth of the region is not captured not through corporate or municipal taxes but rather through income and capital gains taxes at the state level. The top 1 percent of the state’s earners float 48 percent of California’s income tax revenues.
It is worth noting that Nunes, the GOP Congressman quoted above, has also proposed a ballot initiative to eliminate the state’s income tax, even though this is the revenue source that basically funds almost 70 percent of the California general fund after the previous generation of Californians voted to gut the property tax base in 1978.
“Why can’t our mass transit systems be profitable?”
BART and Caltrain’s farebox recovery ratios are already among the very highest in the country. This figure measures the share of a transit system’s operating costs that fares cover, but excludes the cost of major capital improvements.
The world’s profitable mass transit systems are in Asian cities, which are sufficiently dense to finance this kind of infrastructure. Systems like Hong Kong’s MTR also get to operate as large-scale real estate developers and landlords, which lets them earn revenue from renting out commercial space around stations. When new infrastructure gets built, the surrounding land values and rents go up and the transit system is able to capture some of that value as a landlord operating malls around stations.
But in California, voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut property taxes and indexed them to whatever price a landowner originally paid for their property. This means that when we improve public infrastructure, private property owners, rather than public systems, capture almost all of the unearned upside in nearby land rents or property values. There are some modest value capture mechanisms that the state of California uses to finance infrastructure, but they are not on the scale or order of what is commonplace in Tokyo or Hong Kong.
What You Can Do (From Easy to Hard)
There are only 10,000 out of at least 100,000 signatures needed here. While petitions seem ineffective, Caltrain has asked that people sign it as a measure of public support.
Talk to your co-workers or your company leadership
Do you work for a company that is based along the route? Many workers don’t realize how deeply this affects their potential commute. Some large-scale Bay Area companies like Facebook and Genentech are pretty conscientious and vocal about transit policy in the Bay Area but others, like Apple, don’t have a strong public record on being thoughtful about regional impacts of their geographically dispersed workforces.
Silicon Valley Leadership Group is bringing 65 CEOs and Bay Area mayors to Washington D.C. this month to push for Caltrain electrification.
Ask if your CEO is going.
Contact the Department of Transportation
Send a custom letter to Secretary Chao here, and call their offices. Please be polite. Welbes and Lana Hurdle are career employees and we’ll continue to need their help.
Elaine Chao: (202) 366–4000
Matthew Welbes: (202) 366–4040
Lana Hurdle: (202) 366–6031
Here’s a call script:
“Hi, I am [YOUR NAME] from [WHERE YOU’RE FROM].
I’m calling to urge you to voice your support of the Caltrain electrification project. It is more cost-effective than any mass transit project that the administration would like to fund, but California’s Republican delegation wants to choke federal funds to it, since it is a necessary component of California High-Speed Rail.
Caltrain electrification would create 9,600 jobs across the country and supports some of the country’s fastest-growing employers. It has many benefits to local commuters who are stuck in traffic, regardless of what happens with high-speed rail, but the state Republicans want to hold it hostage until they get high-speed rail canceled.
You owe it to your constituents to do what you can to make sure good public investments like Caltrain electrification get the funding that they need and are not held hostage to grandstanding.”
You can also send a message to the Transportation Secretary on Twitter, @SecElaineChao.
Call GOP Representatives and Senators who are from districts that will lose jobs or who are directly blocking Caltrain funding. (This is probably the most important.)
Here are the 14 Republican California state legislators who lobbied the new Transportation Secretary to cut off funding to Caltrain.
Four of them — Darrell Issa of Encinitas, Steve Knight of Los Angeles, Ed Royce of Los Angeles and Jeff Denham of Modesto — are in districts that went for Hillary Clinton and therefore may be vulnerable in the 2018 midterms.
Then, there are 9,600 jobs for contractors slated to work on Caltrain electrification spanning from Utah to Florida. The number is almost 10 times the amount of jobs Trump claimed to have saved in Indiana’s Carrier deal.
Here are Republican elected officials whose districts will lose jobs if this deal falls through.
Congressional Representatives from California
Darrell Issa (Encinitas, California): 202–225–3906
Steve Knight (Los Angeles, California): 202–225–1956
Ed Royce (Los Angeles, California): 202–225–4111
U.S. Congressional Representatives
Andy Harris (Westminster, Maryland): 202–225–5311
Bob Gibbs (Canton, Ohio): 202–225–6265
Chris Stewart (Salt Lake City, Utah): 202–225–9730
Dave Brat (Richmond, Virginia): 202–225–2815
David Rouzer (Goldsboro, North Carolina): 202–225–2731
Drew Ferguson IV (Villa Rica, Georgia): 202–225–5901
Evan Jenkins (Huntington, West Virginia): 202–225–6601
Jason Chaffetz (Salt Lake City, Utah): 202–225–7751
John Culberson (Houston, Texas): 202–225–2571
John Rutherford (Jacksonville, Florida): 202–225–2501
Kay Granger (Fort Worth, Texas): 202–225–5071
Kenny Marchant (Fort Worth, Texas): 202–225–6605
Leonard Lance (Somerville, New Jersey): 202–225–5361
Mia Love (Salt Lake City, Utah): 202–225–3011
Mike Coffman (Littleton, Colorado): 202–225–7882
Patrick Meehan (Douglassville, Pennsylvania): 202–225–2011
Rob Bishop (Salt Lake City, Utah): 202–225–0453
Rob Wittman (Richmond, Virginia): 202–225–4261
Roger Williams (Alvarado, Texas): 202–225–9896
Ryan Costello (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania): 202–225–4315
Sean Duffy (Hudson, Wisconsin): 202–225–3365
Ted Poe (Humble, Texas): 202–225–6565
Trey Gowdy (Greenville, South Carolina): 202–225–6030
U.S. Senators from affected states
Cory Gardner, Colorado: (202) 224–5941
Marco Rubio, Florida: (202) 224–3041
John “Johnny” Isakson, Georgia: (202) 224–3643
David Perdue, Georgia: (202) 224–3521
Todd Young, Indiana: (202) 224–5623
Richard Burr, North Carolina: (202) 224–3154
Thom Tillis, North Carolina: (202) 224–6342
Robert “Rob” Portman, Ohio: (202) 224–3353
Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania: (202) 224–4254
Lindsey Graham, South Carolina: (202) 224–5972
Tim Scott, South Carolina: (202) 224–6121
John Cornyn, Texas: (202) 224–2934
Ted Cruz, Texas: (202) 224–5922
Mike Lee, Utah: (202) 224–5444
Orin Hatch, Utah: (202) 224–5251
Shelley Capito, West Virginia: (202) 224–6472
Ron Johnson, Wisconsin: (202) 224–5323
Flyer at stations
Learn about the long-term vision for Bay Area mass transit
The Caltrain Corridor Vision Plan from SPUR is an ambitious, but achievable, plan for improving transportation between San Francisco and the South Bay. Come to a forum today on Wednesday, March 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the San Mateo Library on improving mobility in the Caltrain Corridor.