Silicon Valley has long been heralded as the world’s center of innovation. Yet every day, when some of the country’s smartest engineers commute to work, they do so on an aging train system. The Caltrain rail system, with a daily ridership of 60,000 people, breaks down more than 19 times a month. Its diesel trains were built in the 1980s, and according to the system’s engineers, replacement parts are getting harder to find. Two-thirds of the fleet is, according to Caltrain, at the “end of its useful life.”

Infrastructure across the country is nearing the end of its useful life, too. In 2016, America’s infrastructure network earned a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. In a Last Week Tonight segment highlighting the poor state of American infrastructure, HBO’s John Oliver ran a montage of politicians admitting, “infrastructure isn’t sexy.” Through his churlish humor, Oliver portrayed a popular trope in American politics: when the public doesn’t care, neither do legislators. Yet, as Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes, people “sure care about the potholes on their streets.”

That kind of thinking illustrates a fundamental disconnect between infrastructure as a concept—the boring details politicians talk about—and infrastructure as an everyday necessity—the roads, bridges, and water systems that help society function. Rather than igniting a national movement like in past American infrastructure projects, the United States would benefit most from bottom-up proposals, such as the Caltrain Modernization Program, an example that includes all the narrative elements of the larger infrastructure debate. Modern day infrastructure investment is a national issue that requires local solutions and a personal approach. Caltrain’s background with voter pressure, federal roadblocks, and local demands demonstrates just one such problem in the larger infrastructure crisis.

(Almost) Out of Service

Caltrain’s deficiencies typify those of transportation infrastructure throughout the United States. The delays, scheduling conflicts, environmental concerns, and safety hazards all have very real effects on Bay Area people and businesses. The Silicon Valley Working Group is an interest group that represents many of the area’s largest companies. It has taken a strong position in favor of increased infrastructure spending because transportation for employees is critical to the corporations SVLG represents. SVLG estimates the average worker in Silicon Valley spends one hour and ten minutes commuting each day—the second longest commute in the country. Every minute spent commuting inconveniences not only the individual but also the area’s largest companies. Apple, Facebook, AT&T, Bank of America, Netflix, Tesla, and others are all represented by SVLG, which has put considerable effort into advancing the so-called Caltrain Modernization Project.

Bay Area voters, including those in San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Jose have repeatedly approved ballot measures to raise funds for Caltrain’s modernization. The plan includes train electrification, increased capacity, efficiency, and safety. Along with material benefits, Caltrain expects the project to create nearly 10,000 jobs. Even though Silicon Valley voters approved local measures to provide steady funding, the Modernization Project still relies on funding grants from the federal government. In February 2017, the 14 Republican Representatives from California wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao requesting a halt in Caltrain’s funding. Senior Director of Transportation for SVLG, Chris O’Connor, says the letter took he and his colleagues off guard.

The Trump administration proceeded to eliminate all $647 million of funding, which represented a little less than one-third of the project’s total budget. The Republican Representatives argued against Caltrain’s renewal project because they didn’t approve of a much more ambitious high-speed rail project that would also receive funding. Because the California delegation couldn’t coalesce around a larger scale project, the necessary local improvements were postponed indefinitely. O’Connor described the Republicans’ letter as “a bit of a political issue.” That understatement belies what is true throughout the United States: the desire for a grand vision of national infrastructure improvement overshadows and in some cases, derails the local projects most necessary to citizens.

All Aboard the Loca(l)motive   

Caltrain’s story doesn’t end with Secretary Chao’s first decision to cut its funding. Rather, its saga centers around a historically underappreciated factor: local action. According to O’Connor, within 24 hours of Secretary Chao’s original decision, SVLG gathered signatures from more than 100 Silicon Valley executives in support of Caltrain’s modernization. The group also begun working with local activists to call elected officials and to exert significant lobbying efforts in Washington. Their local action paid off. In May 2017, after months of public pressure, Secretary Chao approved the full grant to Caltrain with hopes to complete the project by 2020. Even with this money though, local and state taxes are funding more than three-quarters of the renewal project—a statistic that, according to O’Connor, signals the future of infrastructure.

Miami residents have taken a similar approach to secure funding for their own public transit system. Local activists created ‘Public Transit Day’ to increase metropolitan ridership and to convince politicians and city planners of the necessity of infrastructure investments. Miamians still need to vote on a tax increase to pay for the proposed renovations, which Kanter described as “very ambitious.” Ambition, however, might be exactly what the United States needs. If Congress is unable to unite behind the lofty ideal of national renovations, municipalities and states must pick up the mantle of infrastructure investment.

Compared to local successes, Congress has been floundering. American voters have consistently supported increased infrastructure spending both within and across party lines.  Some 72 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans support President Trump’s call for increased infrastructure spending in his proposed tax plan. Unfortunately, other, more contentious legislative agendas, such as the border wall, have moved the nation’s focus away from traditional infrastructure and towards the administration’s new immigration proposals. Because of this, Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute, says he doesn’t expect anything to come of Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments until Summer 2018. Despite the present national crisis, O’Connor emphasized that “the script hasn’t been finalized.”

Until Congress finds a bipartisan way to solve the infrastructural issues that plague the United States, it will be up to municipalities and state governments to incrementally tackle the issue. Elected officials should keep in mind Professor Kanter’s most memorable line: “ultimately it’s the public that cares and the public that suffers.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The United States’ collective desire for national infrastructure investment is only natural given its history of large-scale constructional undertakings. Today though, projects like the Interstate Highway System are not only difficult to design but hard to rally around. The IHS was started in 1956 as a hugely ambitious mission that called for 21,000 miles of road. President Eisenhower, the project’s chief architect, advertised it as a defense initiative, inviting broad public support as a result. Professor Kanter commented on how difficult this would be to replicate today: “Unless there is that kind of vision and sense of priority, it’ll be very hard to get this moving. We’ll get moving on small things, but nothing like the Interstate Highway System.”

Even if the nation can rally around a grand vision for American infrastructure, the intricacies of passing such legislation seem almost insurmountable. The federal government has yet to agree upon an appropriate funding source for major investments. Its current source—the federal gas tax—is projected to make less money each year as more electric and fuel efficient cars hit the road. In his interview with the HPR, Mark Strand argued that even if Congress can find a funding source, they may still be incapable of deciding how to allocate money to the different states: “Big states will be screaming loud; California, New York, and Illinois will feel like they’re getting screwed by North Dakota, South Dakota, and Rhode Island.” In reference to Trump’s infrastructure package, Strand optimistically commented that “I think that it’s the first real chance for [Congress] to do bipartisan work. And to the president’s credit, whatever you think about him, the guy is a builder and he does appreciate infrastructure.”

Although it’s possible that a national spending package passes, in the current state of polarization, such ambitions seem highly unlikely. That makes a recent trend in state budgets even more worrying. According to an Economist report, in the second quarter of 2017, government infrastructure spending dropped to 1.4 percent of GDP, “the lowest share on record.” Ideally, municipalities would fill that void, but the same report noted that local spending in the first seven months of 2017 was 20 percent below the same period in 2016. This dangerous trend must reverse course if the United States wants to fix its roads, bridges, waterways, and railways. The Caltrain Modernization Program is again, a perfect case study for why we need local investment in infrastructure.

Engineers predict that the Caltrain renewal project will increase the daily capacity to 110,000 people (nearly double its current amount). This increase in commuters will increase revenue, stabilizing the system for years to come. Greenhouse emissions are predicted to decrease by 97 percent by 2040 due to the trains’ electrification. More significantly for the environment, Caltrain’s modernization will clear the road of 619,000 miles of driving every day. These massive benefits from local projects illustrate how the United States can push forward with its infrastructural improvements without the hindrance of petty gridlock politics.  Instead of promoting a national project which requires coalition building, charismatic leadership, and a national consensus on funding, the United States must rely on local projects like the Caltrain Improvement Program to fix more of America’s deteriorating infrastructure.


Image Source: Flickr/mjambon

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