When you read this column, we may know the outcome of the 2020 presidential election but as I write it, we do not.
In the bright sunlight of this November morning this election has given us reasons to count our thanks in the passage of the Yes on RR campaign, and reasons to hold our breath. I had hoped to write about what an incoming Biden Administration might mean for the Bay Area.
Instead, let’s compare the transportation and infrastructure platform laid out by the Biden Campaign and the transportation and infrastructure promises made by the Trump Administration.
For Bay Area transit agencies, the past four years have been disappointing.
“The U.S. hasn’t made much progress, certainly in the last four years,” observed Jim Lawson, Valley Transportation Authority’s chief external affairs officer. “The current Federal Transit Administration has been nothing but helpful in trying to promote public transit but the amount of funding forthcoming has been inadequate.”
Across the country, transit operators have faced tough conversations thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns and the subsequent loss of ridership. For Caltrain, that has meant increased urgency around the passage of Measure RR.
It has always been Caltrain’s goal to identify a long-term funding source but for an agency that generates the majority of operating revenues from the farebox — to its credit — it is even more difficult to offset ridership losses.
Thanks to record-breaking voter turnout in the blue Bay Area, it looks as though Caltrain will finally get the financial stability it has long sought through the passage of Measure RR. A potential incoming Biden Administration has already made a broad commitment to a “second great rail revolution,” as part of Former Vice President Biden’s Climate Action Plan.
President Trump, who, along with the rest of the Republican party, chose not to put forward a party platform in 2020, has long talked about infrastructure week as a potential economic boon. While his thoughts on how these investments would be made have always been light on detail, the funding sources have always been suspect as well.
There’s little evidence to suggest that Trump’s public-private funding approach would be robust enough to meet the vast array of infrastructure needs across the country. In a 2017 American energy infrastructure report card, the country got a “D+,” stating that much of the country’s energy infrastructure pre-dates the turn of the century – that’s just one category that doesn’t include bridges, highways, ports, airports, and public transportation. Since then, the Trump Administration has not passed any major new infrastructure investment bills.
VTA is grappling with its own coronavirus-driven financial challenges through the lens of its 2021 transit service planning process. Earlier this year it rolled out three service cut scenarios – 70%, 80%, or 90% cuts were outlined.
As a former transit agency communications staffer, I can tell you the draft service level “scenarios” is a tactic. You give the public and the board a Draconian position from which they can negotiate improved service options. So I feel safe in my belief that the board will not move towards the deepest cuts. But the bottom line is the ridership losses make it impossible to continue to operate at the current levels so the board will ultimately be asked to make some tough choices.
The final proposed 2021 Transit Service Plan will go to the board in December. But it won’t include the consideration of cannibalizing capital funding approved by the voters through previous measures.
“If you are using capital dollars for operations you are using a one-time funding source for an ongoing expenditure and you will continue to have the same structural problem,” Lawson said.
Lawson refers to the practice as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and acknowledges that Measure B did include the option for a “super-majority of board members to vote to redirect funding.” But doing so only creates more challenges, needed investments in new equipment and facilities may be delayed or permanently eliminated, and replacing those funds requires a new vote of the people needing a two-thirds majority for passage.
But an incoming Biden Administration offers a real vision for infrastructure investment that goes beyond the “infrastructure weeks” the Trump Administration often discussed but rarely implemented.
Lawson said he is looking forward to having an ally in Kamala Harris. “She’s well aware of the challenges we are facing in California and I’m hopeful we’ll have a friendly ear in the administration.”
Biden’s long-term support for transit ridership could also work in VTA’s favor. “Having someone, like Biden, who is an actual transit commuter in the White House is a good thing for public transportation,” Lawson mused.
Increased federal support could help push California’s High-Speed Rail Program forward and with it plans for major investments in San Jose around the Diridon Station.
The next phase of BART to Silicon Valley, the Eastridge Connector, and the plans to completely reimagine the Diridon Station Area as a “Grand Central Station of the West,” are just a few of the projects that could potentially benefit from expanded spending.
But even under a new and more transit-friendly White House, a Republican-held Senate could put the brakes on proposed new spending programs. It’s likely that we will see the same return to “austerity” that Republicans seem to make under every Democratic presidential administration.
It’s no accident that the projects for which VTA hopes to attract funding have been under discussion for more than a decade. This isn’t a dig at VTA, but a comment on the layers of local, state, and federal bureaucracy that creates miles of red tape and delays for any major capital improvement project.
Ten years from now, I expect we’ll be riding BART from a subway station in Downtown San Jose to the city. But clearly, my crystal ball is a little cloudy. I’ve been talking about the importance of Caltrain electrification since 2002. We’re not quite there yet.
Twenty years is a glacial planning horizon. There is no way to keep pace with the Bay Area’s transportation demand management needs if it takes us two decades to make progress. We will always be playing catch up.
But then that seems to be the story of America. Progress happens, but slowly because to get there we seem determined to take two steps forward and one step back, over and over again.
Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.