House Spending Bill Includes $100 Million for Key Caltrain Project

Caltrain cars at San Jose's Diridon Station, December 2016. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Updated 7:25 a.m. Wednesday

A House appropriations bill proposed this week as part of a package to fund federal government operations through the end of September contains what could be a welcome surprise for Caltrain.

Legislation from the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation includes $100 million for the Peninsula commuter railroad's planned electrification of its route from San Jose to San Francisco.

It's far from certain, however, that Caltrain will get to spend the money. Congress has yet to vote on the bill including the electrification funding -- a project that has faced unanimous opposition from the 14 Republicans in California's House delegation. And even if Congress approves the legislation and it's signed into law, the transit agency will receive the funds only if the Trump administration signs off on a $647 million grant agreement that's been on hold since February.

"It's not a done deal, but it's good progress," said Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew. She added: "We still have a long way to go."

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Caltrain had secured Obama administration approval for the $647 million federal grant that would help pay for the line's electrification. The rest of the money for the $1.9 billion project would come from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which would kick in $600 million in bond funds and use the electrified line in the future, and a variety of local and regional sources.

Caltrain says electrifying its line will allow it to modernize its fleet and increase passenger capacity 70 percent by 2040. The agency has said the project would create 9,600 jobs in 15 states. If funding is lined up, electrification work could begin this year, with a projected completion date of 2021.

California's House Republicans pounced on the connection to the state's high-speed rail project to urge Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to reject the grant.

The GOP contingent argued the public will be stuck with a huge bill for a system that will never work as promised. The delegation's letter said providing the requested electrification grant "would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars."

California's House Democrats, all 39 of them, answered with a letter urging Chao to approve the grant.

They said Republicans were guilty of "a material misstatement of fact" in characterizing the grant as intended primarily to aid the bullet train and that the project meets President Trump's declared goals for infrastructure investment.

Chao has until June 30 to decide on the grant. That's also the deadline set in Caltrain's agreements with contractors for work to begin on the electrification project.