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AASHTO Journal

FTA Finalizes Grant Agreement for San Francisco Area’s Caltrain Electrification Project

The Federal Transit Administration committed to a "full funding grant agreement" that could ultimately provide $647 million to the Caltrain project that will convert the San Francisco area's diesel-powered commuter rail system to operate electric trains.

The FTA had suspended action on the grant earlier this year, after California's Republican congressional delegation urged Chao to halt it until a full audit could be conducted on the state's separate high-speed rail program. That suspension came shortly before a scheduled March 1 project launch, and the local agency had to negotiate costly changes giving it until June 30 to reach a final decision.

In all, Caltrain's Pacific Corridor Electrification Project is expected to cost nearly $2 billion. Caltrain said it has already lined up more than $1.3 billion in local, regional and state commitments but needed to lock in the long-planned federal grant in order to get under way.

capitol0816.jpgIt has also said the project should create more than 10,000 jobs in various states as it orders supplies and new trains outside California.

The FTA said May 22 that "with the Caltrain project having met all of the statutory requirements" it would sign the agreement in preparation for releasing $100 million that Congress provided for the project in its recent government funding bill for the current fiscal year.

"As with all signed FFGAs," the FTA added, "additional funding amounts specified in the agreement are subject to the congressional appropriations process during future years." A spokeswoman said FTA and Caltrain officials signed the grant agreement May 23.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement: "Caltrain's fleet of diesel trains are at the end of their useful life. Now is the time to replace these outdated, dirty diesel trains with a cleaner, modern electric fleet. Almost two decades of planning for this $1.98 billion project hinged upon this grant agreement. For the past three months we've waited to hear the status of the grant, while Caltrain was forced to spend roughly $15 million to hold its contractors in place. With this agreement, the project can finally begin."

She also noted that the grant agreement covers five years. Now that Congress has already approved $100 million for it, Feinstein said that "I'll do all I can in the coming years to ensure Congress continues to provide full funding to keep this project moving forward."

Sen. Kamala Harris, also D-Calif., had pressed U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao about the pending grant agreement during a May 17 hearing, and Feinstein had announced May 15 she would oppose all nominees for U.S. Department of Transportation positions until the Caltrain funding was approved.

News of the FTA's approval came the same week as President Trump's full budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. As expected, Trump called for zeroing out any of the FTA's "new starts" transit grants for projects that do not already have signed grant agreements, raising questions about how his administration will react to others that are close to finalizing their grant deals.

Congress has already provided partial funding for another 20 transit projects across the country that will soon be ready for construction, but the administration would have to finalize their grant agreements in order to fund them.

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