House Republicans launch a petty attack on a smart rail project

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and members of his Cabinet at the White House on March 13.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and members of his Cabinet at the White House on March 13. The Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown this week urged House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to free $650 million for an important commuter rail project on the San Francisco Peninsula. Now, 121 Silicon Valley leaders are making their pitch.

“The economic importance of electrifying CalTrain cannot be overstated,” the Silicon Valley Leadership Group said in the letter signed by executives from Google, eBay, Seagate, the San Francisco 49ers and scores of other companies to President Donald Trump and Chao, his transportation secretary.

The idea behind all public works projects, CalTrain included, is straightforward: We collectively pitch in to pay for work that benefits large numbers of people. Too often, however, funding falls victim to politics, as residents of the San Francisco Peninsula have found.

There’s much to commend the project to electrify what now is a diesel commuter train that chugs from San Jose to San Francisco. The standing-room only train carries 65,000 people a day now. It would carry 110,000 once the electrification and other improvements are completed.

From the Peninsula’s CalTrain to Bakersfield’s Bill Thomas freeway, we pay for public works because they benefit the whole public. So why are this state’s House Republicans undercutting one of the most important rail projects in Northern California?

The added ridership would eliminate 619,000 vehicle miles each day, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide 10,000 engineering and manufacturing jobs in California, Utah, Texas and elsewhere. Local taxpayers imposed a sales tax increase on themselves to pay for much of the $1.98 billion project. The federal share would be $650 million.

“If you’re not for that, you’re really not for infrastructure,” Brown said recently.

What’s not to like? Plenty, if you’re a petty politician.

Led by McCarthy, California’s 14 congressional Republicans sent a letter to Chao in January urging her to block the fed’s $650 million share. McCarthy is holding CalTrain electrification hostage because he opposes the voter-approved high-speed rail project backed by Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger before him.

No matter that Trump promised to spend huge sums on infrastructure. Chao, in her first significant act as transportation secretary, acceded to McCarthy and blocked funding for an important rail project.

There is a classist Us versus Them aspect to this sour piece of small politics, as McCarthy’s ally, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, made clear at the California Republican Party convention last month.

Speaking to a gaggle of reporters, Nunes shrugged off the decision to withhold the $650 million: “Why should the federal government pay for that? You’ve got the richest – you have more billionaires in Silicon Valley than anywhere else.”

Nunes pointed out that Peninsula residents “aren’t willing to give up their water that’s coming from Hetch Hetchy” to irrigate farms in his district. “So you’re not going to get me to feel too bad for one of the richest places on the planet not having a train,” Nunes said, chip firmly implanted on his shoulder.

Like McCarthy, Nunes emerged from the Republican political machine built by former Rep. Bill Thomas, McCarthy’s predecessor in the Bakersfield congressional seat, and a politician who fully understands the nature of public works funding.

In 2014, Thomas, his voice cracking with emotion, urged that the California Transportation Commission earmark $49 million for a two-mile stretch freeway that will bear his name in his hometown of Bakersfield.

The commission ended up earmarking $33 million in state tax money for the $500 million project. The feds are providing $330 million, courtesy of Thomas’ mastery of federal budget earmarks when he was House Ways & Means chairman.

We don’t point this out to suggest that Peninsula politicians should link funding for CalTrain to the Bill Thomas freeway in Bakersfield. That would be petty.

Rather, wise Californians understand we all have a stake in legitimate public works projects. We all help pay for roads in Kern County and trains on the Peninsula, understanding that others will support us when the need arises. It’s the way civil society should work.