It's a long way from becoming law, but the Trump administration's proposed budget for transportation comes with a message for traffic-choked regions like the Bay Area: If you want big new transit projects to ease the congestion you're seeing, or if you're looking to make major new investments so your existing transit systems work better, that's your business -- the federal government's not going to help.
The administration's preliminary spending plan, made public Thursday, would end the Department of Transportation's Capital Improvement Grant program, an initiative that has been crucial to big-ticket projects in the Bay Area, across the state and throughout the nation.
In the past, the grant program has helped fund BART's extension to San Francisco International Airport, the San Francisco's Central Subway project, now under construction and due to open in 2019, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's BART extension into San Jose, the first phase of which is due to open later this year.
Elimination of the program, also known as New Starts, is far from a done deal. Thursday's budget proposal is just the first step in a long process that won't conclude until the fall, and New Starts has enjoyed wide support, even in a fiscally conservative, Republican-dominated Congress.
But major Bay Area transit agencies are expressing concern, because the program figures prominently in plans to aid a series of ambitious projects that local officials say are crucial to adding capacity to the region's overtaxed transit services. The initiatives include:
- Caltrain's request for $647 million to help pay for electrification of its line from Silicon Valley to downtown San Francisco.
- A BART project seeking between $900 million and $1 billion to modernize its train control system, upgrade its electrical equipment, finish work on a new maintenance center in Hayward and supplement its Fleet of the Future with 306 new train cars.
- The VTA's request for $1.5 billion to extend BART to downtown San Jose.
The Trump proposal would apparently honor several billion dollars' worth of projects that have already obtained what the Department of Transportation calls a Full-Funding Grant Agreement, a document akin to a contract. But none of the Bay Area projects are quite at that point. The grants are contingent on a range of factors, including obtaining local and state funding and a sound financial plan, including making sure transit agencies are prepared to pay for cost overruns.
The Caltrain electrification project was at the very threshold of getting its final funding agreement in place last month when the Department of Transportation put the funding request on hold.
Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's chief spokesman, said in an email from Washington, D.C., on Thursday that the electrification proposal "continues to be in limbo."
"The project checks all of the boxes that the administration has said it wants to accomplish through infrastructure investment," Murphy said. "Caltrain electrification is the most shovel-ready transit project in the country, and we hope to be counted as an existing FFGA in whatever budget is ultimately approved."
BART's grant request is a key part of its plan to expand service between the East Bay and San Francisco. Funding would help pay for a new train control system and to increase the number of new cars the district is buying from 775 to 1,081.
BART says the new control system would allow it to send 30 cars per hour through the Transbay Tube instead of the current 23. Taking that step and adding the extra cars would expand passenger capacity by 49 percent, the agency says.
The project "is critical for us," BART spokesman Jim Allison said. "Most of our riders are going through the Transbay Tube and our peak-hour trains are packed. If we can get more trains through there, we can absorb additional riders and make more room for people who are riding now in cramped quarters."
VTA spokesperson Linh Hoang emphasized that the spending proposal released today is preliminary and that the budget process -- with a more complete fiscal plan due later in the spring followed by congressional revisions -- has a long way to go.
"We're moving forward as planned" on the BART extension to San Jose, she said. "We're hoping that Congress will see the value of this project and intervene to get it funded."
And if that doesn't happen?
"We will be working diligently to fill that funding gap. This is a project our county has wanted for a long time -- for decades," Hoang said, noting that voters have passed two major sales tax measures to support the BART extension.