A brewing scandal involving Federal Funding for the Bay Area Commuter line, Caltrain, has emerged. Caltrain has been seeking funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for its “modernization program”. Caltrain has been seeking approval for a FTA Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) in the amount of $647 million. Caltrain was pushing very hard to get approval of the grant, before the Trump administration took over on Jan 20th.
The push to get approval before Jan 20th involved, in a rush effort, special meetings being called by three county boards to approve additional funds. The additional funding from these boards, was being demanded by the FTA, before approving the FFGA. Even the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) held a special meeting and then sent its executive director, Steve Heminger, to Washington to lobby and gain approval of the grant, before the new Trump administration could take control.
Well, all these efforts succeeded and on Jan 18th, FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers, signed off on approving the grant. The approval has set off a 30 day period where several Federal congressional committees are alerted and can respond to the approval.
Final approval for the grant must then be given by the new DOT Cabinet Secretary Elaine Chao.
In the midst of this 30 day period, on Feb 10th the LA Times publishes an article revealing that Ms. Flowers, has suddenly been employed by AECOM, a major vendor to Caltrain. AECOM has a financial interest in the “modernization” project, which the grant will fund.
All 14 members of the GOP Congressional Delegation, have written Secretary Chao to delay approval of this grant and until an oversight hearing of the grant is held. Leading this effort are House Majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Jeff Denham, Chair of the House rail sub-committee. The delegation members are also very concerned the grant is effectively providing federal funding for the High Speed Rail project, which has previously been targeted to not receive any further federal support. The “modernization” project is also being partially funded by over $700 million from the California High Speed Rail Authority.
Caltrain spokesmen have declared, any delay will effectively kill the “modernization” project. This is pure non-sense. Quite clearly this grant needs a full hearing. Secretary Chao should indeed take the prudent path, and order a review of the grant.