The $1.96 billion Caltrain electrification project came to screeching halt on Friday, Feb. 17, after it was announced that Federal Transit Administration officials were holding back grant funding needed within days for construction to begin.
The $647 million grant request from Caltrain could still win federal approval down the line, but Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials are reportedly telling local officials that the request must be added to President Donald Trump's 2018 budget.
At the very least, it amounts to a delay; at worst, it could mean the project is scrapped, said Seamus Murphy, spokesman for the Caltrain electrification project.
"Under normal circumstances this should have been easy, but now we don't know if federal funding will be there," he said. "If we don't have access to the federal funds, then we won't have a Caltrain electrification project."
FTA representatives could not be reached for immediate comment.
If the political climate were different, Caltrain officials say, the funding request would have been a shoo-in for approval. FTA officials gave the electrification project medium-high ratings in a July review, which normally would have guaranteed approval.
Of the dozens of grants awarded through the FTA capital investment program, Murphy said it is unprecedented for a project that met all the requirements to be deferred like this.
But even before the FTA announcement, the rail electrification upgrades seemed to be barreling toward political danger. Earlier this month, it was revealed that California's congressional Republican delegation sought to block the Caltrain electrification funding as a way to also stymie the state's $64-billion high-speed rail project. That coalition of 14 representatives sent a Jan. 24 letter to new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, urging her not to sign off on the grant.
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Rep. Anna Eshoo denounced the delay as a political maneuver and pledged to try to get funding approval before next month.
"I never imagined that the electrification of a train would be subjected to such brutal, partisan politics," she said in her statement. "The only requirement this didn't meet was a political one."
Caltrain officials say they have been scrambling since first learning Friday morning that the federal portion of the $1.96 billion project was being held back.
Losing out on that money throws into jeopardy the project's two main contracts with Stadler Rail AG and Balfour Beatty. In those contracts, Caltrain officials had committed themselves to a March 1 deadline to give the go-ahead for construction. It is still unclear what it would mean if Caltrain misses that deadline, Murphy said.
"We're evaluating our options and determining how long we can extend that deadline," Murphy said. He declined to elaborate on any options being considered.
Caltrain has already spent $150 million on design and preliminary construction to prepare for electrification to begin this year. As of now, the project is described as "shovel ready" and capable of providing thousands of jobs.
Originally pitched more than 15 years ago, the project to electrify the Peninsula rail corridor would be a dramatic upgrade to a transit system used by more than 47,000 daily riders on average.
The 51-mile Caltrain line stretching from San Jose to San Francisco is running at full capacity with diesel-powered engines that have been outpaced by newer technologies. A new electrified system could reportedly run about 20 percent more trains and eventually reduce emissions by up to 97 percent.