The local California Bay Area commuter train, Caltrain, has for years been planning to convert from diesel powered trains, to electrically powered train sets. Obtaining funding for the project, which has doubled in projected cost in the last 5 years, has been the major obstacle for Caltrain in achieving that goal.

Now we find Caltrain is being reckless in approving going ahead with the electrification project, while the proposed funding for the project is highly questionable to say the least. At the upcoming Dec 1st Caltrain Board meeting, the directors are being asked to approve a series of actions, to immediately start construction of the project.

The almost $2 billion in needed funding for the project, is really built like a shaky tower.  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), is being asked to approve a Core Grant ($647 million) for the project. Caltrain broadcasts this Core Grant as a “done deal” which is certainly not the case.  The FTA currently has not approved this Core Grant, and such approval is absolutely predicated upon Caltrain receiving additional funding from the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The proposed High Speed Rail funding (about $600 million) requires the sale of Prop 1A (2008) bonds.  Before Prop 1A bonds can be sold, the Authority must create two funding plans. The plans must conform to the many restrictions written into Prop 1A, and they must pass muster before various agencies.  To date the Authority, for the last 8 years, has been unable to create these plans, and thus far no sale of Prop 1A bonds for construction funding has been achieved.

This year the State legislature passed into law, AB-1889 (Mullin), a measure sponsored by Caltrain, as an attempt to amend the voter approved Prop 1A.  AB-1889 would circumvent provisions of Prop 1A, and allow Prop 1A bonds to be sold with the funds being used for the Caltrain electrification project.

Much has been written on this effort.  In a “nutshell”, AB-1889 is unconstitutional.

Caltrain, should face the fact, that a new President is about to be inaugurated, and new heads of the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) and FTA are sure to be appointed.  The new appointees may well have different views on Core Grant and other funding.

Yet with all the problems facing the funding, Caltrain is racing ahead with the project, signing contracts, starting preconstruction work, borrowing funds etc.

Where is a back-up plan when the funding from the HSR Authority, and / or the FTA Core Grant is not approved?  Just how great will be the cost, when the proposed funding collapses, and work has to be halted for lack of funds?

Caltrain is a public agency, and it is tantamount that public funds be protected and not wasted.  The risk reward ratio, of delaying this project, until funding is really assured, is the prudent path.