An Electrifyingly Bad Decision

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao’s support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.

The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains’ contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.

Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution. 

Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California’s bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state’s rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won’t really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.

California Governor Jerry Brown had hoped to fund the state’s high-speed rail project out of carbon cap-and-trade revenues, but that hasn’t worked out. That means the only hope for high-speed trains is federal funding. Since the only legitimate reason for Caltrains electrification is to support high-speed trains, Chao’s decision to fund electrification effectively signs off on billions in future federal subsidies for California high-speed rail. It is quite likely that the next governor of California will want to kill the high-speed rail project before any more money is wasted on it, but Chao’s decision will make it harder for him or her to do so.

Chao’s sign-off on Caltrains electrification also gives hope to supporters of dozens of wasteful rail projects around the country, ranging from Maryland’s Purple light-rail line to a Fort Lauderdale streetcar line to a light-rail line to Eden Prairie, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Minneapolis. None of these projects have any transportation benefits: the Purple Line will dramatically increase congestion in suburban Washington, D.C.; proponents of the the Fort Lauderdale streetcar predict that it will attract no new visitors to downtown Fort Lauderdale; and the Eden Prairie line will replace an existing bus line that is faster and far less costly to run than the trains will ever be.

Trump’s budget proposed to end federal funding to projects such as these, suggesting that they should instead be “funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects” (p. 35). However, unlike Caltrains electrification, all of these projects have supporters on both sides of the aisle who want federal pork barrel coming into their states and districts. With the Caltrains precedent, those supporters will make it much harder for Chao to implement Trump’s plan.

One of the strings attached to federal funding for projects like these is that, even if no one rides them, the cities have to keep running them for about 30 years or repay the prorated costs of the federal grants. Most of the projects, including Caltrains electrification, won’t be completed before Ford, Uber, and other companies start flooding cities with fleets of shared, driverless cars able to move people from door to door faster and at a lower cost than transit. Unless sanity returns to the Department of Transportation, we’ll be paying for empty trains for decades to come.