Delay in federal rail grant jeopardizes Caltrain’s $2 billion commuter rail electrification project.

DALLAS -- Northern California commuter rail operator Caltrain is using an on-line petition to urge President Donald Trump to reverse Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's decision to hold up a $647 million federal grant for electrifying its train system.

The Federal Transit Administration said Feb. 18 that it would defer Caltrain's Core Capacity grant to provide "additional time to complete review of this significant commitment of federal resources."

FTA director Matthew Welbes told Caltrain officials that the delay would allow the grant "to be considered in conjunction" with President Trump's upcoming budget proposal for fiscal 2018.

Caltrain's online petition uses Trump's support for infrastructure renewal as the reason he should reverse the hold.

"You have said infrastructure and jobs will be the keystone of your administration," the petition noted. "Caltrain Electrification would support over 9,600 Americans, not only in California, but in states including Utah, Virginia, and Pennsylvania."

The petition at whitehouse.gov must obtain 95,300 signatures by March 20 to be considered, but to date fewer than 5,000 have signed up.

The FTA grant was delayed after all 14 Republicans in the state's congressional delegation asked Chao on Jan. 24 to reject additional federal grants to the California High-Speed Rail Authority for its 800-mile bullet train system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project is over budget and the additional federal money would be wasted, the lawmakers said.

The FTA grant was approved Jan. 18, two days before President Trump was inaugurated. Carolyn Flowers, the acting FTA director who approved the grant, joined Caltrain vendor AECOM on Jan. 31 as its national transit practice leader.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., criticized Flowers for accepting a job at a Caltrain contractor two weeks after approving the $647 million grant. Denham is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's rail panel.

"This is exactly what America hates about Washington, D.C.," he said. "Taxpayers deserve transparency, and it's time for an audit. Period."

The Caltrain project is not part of the high-speed rail effort targeted by the Republican congressmen, said California's two Democratic senators.

"This decision is incomprehensible and will cause delays and millions of dollars of additional costs that could jeopardize the entire project," said Sen. Diane Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris in a joint statement.

Caltrain said the $2 billion project would allow it to replace its aging diesel locomotives with reliable, environmentally friendly electric units.

The CHSRA has pledged $713 million to the project from the $10 billion of bonds approved for the bullet train project by California voters in 2008. The high-speed trains would be propelled by the power system installed by Caltrain along its corridor between San Francisco and San Jose.

Caltrain is the seventh-largest commuter rail system in the U.S., with more than 60,000 riders per day on its 77-mile system.

Caltrain officials said the agency has spent $150 million on the project and has obtained $1.3 billion of federal, state, and local funding.

The FTA's Core Capacity grant would have been the final piece of the funding needed for the electrification project, said Caltrain spokesman Seamus Murphy.

"It [the delay] puts the project in serious jeopardy," he said.

The agency signed construction contracts in September that set a deadline of March 1 for going ahead with the work.

Losing the grant could mean the end of Caltrain's electrification project, said state Sen. Scott Wiener.

"Defunding Caltrain electrification is a nightmare scenario for our transportation system and our region and I hope we can reverse course on this disaster," Wiener said. "This just goes to show that we can't rely on this Congress to lift a finger to fund any meaningful improvements to our public transportation system."

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