Michael Theriault headshot

As this month’s Organized Labor reports, the administration of President Donald Trump through its Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has refused to sign off on a federal grant for the electrification of the aging Caltrain commuter rail system from Tamien Station in San Jose to Fourth and King in San Francisco.

Caltrain obtained preliminary approvals for the grant under the Obama administration. It would complete a funding package two-thirds of which has already been secured, most of it from local and state sources. The contracts for both the construction of the system and the manufacture of its electric-powered rail cars expired March 1. Caltrain managed to negotiate four-month extensions with both the design-build contractor, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, and the manufacturer, Stadler US, Inc., but the project is now in danger of not being built at all.

We have a three-county project labor agreement for the project. Knowing this, leaders of both the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and of North America’s Building Trades Unions met with Chao to ask her to reconsider. She declined.

Trump has promised repeatedly to upgrade American infrastructure (with praise for high-speed rail), to create construction and manufacturing jobs, and to end business-as-usual in Washington.

When long-time Congressman and Trump supporter Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield walked in the room with a letter from the small minority of California members of Congress who are Republicans asking that funding for the Caltrain project be denied, all these fine Trump promises floated out a White House window into the Washington dark.

McCarthy and his little delegation conflated the project with high-speed rail, which they abhor. Although the electrification of Caltrain does provide a catenary line system necessary for the eventual extension of high-speed rail to San Francisco, a Contra Costa County Superior Court decision in September 2016 certified that is was an independent project with a value all its own. The catenary line system and the electric train cars it powers would expand Caltrain’s capacity from the 65,000 daily riders it serves today to 110,000.

That’s potentially tens of thousands of fewer cars on Highway 101, along which many of us in the Trades have made our livings and where we have wasted far too many hours away from home and family while sucking fumes in traffic.

Beyond this, the project means jobs across the country. These include not just the thousands of construction jobs it would create directly along the Peninsula, and not even just the tens of thousands of construction jobs it would spawn through follow-on projects here both public and private, such as the downtown extension to the Transbay Terminal and work on and around Diridon Station in San Jose. The project itself would directly produce manufacturing jobs, including in Republican Congressional districts and in states that voted for Trump, such as Texas, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Ohio, and – most notably – Utah, which stands to lose almost six hundred jobs in the assembly of the electric train cars for the system. The follow-on work would create even more.

Score one point for political insiders like McCarthy and for the old Washington business-as-usual of political reward and reprisal, and thousands of points against working women and men.

The Trump administration has not said exactly so, but many believe that the refusal to approve the grant was a shot at jurisdictions with immigration sanctuary policies such as Santa Clara County, San Francisco, and California. A February 2017 piece in the online magazine Politico warned, “…communities’ hopes for major transportation projects could be caught in the crossfire as President Donald Trump threatens to strip federal funding from ‘sanctuary cities’ that defy his immigration policies.”

Trump has claimed repeatedly that undocumented workers “reduce jobs and wages for American workers.” Many an economist argues the contrary, but even if Trump is right, he does not increase American jobs and wages by destroying American jobs such as those from Caltrain electrification.

In January 2016 Trump infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Even so large an economy as California’s is linked inextricably to the economies of other states; maybe more so precisely because of its size. If Trump persists in shooting down funding for Caltrain electrification, he is firing a gun in a crowded room, and it will hurt not just his perceived enemies, but many voters who believed in him and trusted their paychecks and the livelihoods of their families to him.

They need to hear this clearly.

We will see then what they think of their vote, and whether or not he loses them.

Organized Labor


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