Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GREEN GIANT: At last year's State of the City speech, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed announced his plans for an ambitious vision that includes creating more than 25,000 clean-tech jobs locally.
Is San Jose's nonpolitical mayor in a position to attract federal clean-tech dollars?
By Erin Sherbert
SILICON VALLEY business leaders will be keeping close tabs on what happens immediately following inauguration day, when, analysts predict, President Barack Obama may address his plan to shift the nation toward clean technology—an emerging local business sector.
The president has made strong remarks about his plans to elevate the industry and make America a world-leader in green energy. Many hope this will be part of the incoming president's multibillion-dollar stimulus package.
With that in mind, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has been meeting with elected officials and other local leaders to begin framing the valley's priorities as the emergency economic legislation wends its way through Congress.
"There is so much uncertainty with which way the stimulus package will go," Reed says.
Even if the new administration decides to fund clean-tech mass transit, and other industries that would benefit San Jose directly, there's no guarantee that the dollars will find their way to the city.
While other big city mayors were stumping for Obama during the election, Reed remained quiet on the presidential race, never publicly working to support Obama. Instead, the mayor opted to focus on a campaign issue much closer to home: getting the BART tax passed.
Although his efforts paid off in the Nov. 4 election when voters (barely) supported Measure B, the BART tax, the project is still no sure thing. BART needs a $750 million check from the federal government to start construction on a Silicon Valley branch.
After ignoring the presidential race, San Jose's admittedly nonpolitical mayor is now turning his attention to D.C., where he's hoping to capture dollars that will help push along his green vision plan (which includes creating 25,000 clean-tech jobs), as well as his beloved BART project.
Will the mayor's distance from the Obama campaign during the election lower the his chances to capture federal money for his pet projects?
"I don't' think so," Reed says. The president, Reed points out, is not a fan of "earmarked" funding schemes, in which the government allocates specific monies for specific projects. And so, Reed says, "there is less opportunity for political favors and friendships to play a role."
Besides, Reed says, he's got plenty of friends in high places, friends who strongly supported Obama's campaign, and are key players in Congress, close to the new administration. He's relying on these people to help push his green agenda and big-ticket transit projects like BART.
The mayor's office is working with Steve Westly, the former state controller and one-time eBay exec, who co-chaired the California Obama campaign and served on the president-elect's transition team. Reed is also working with the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has ties to former President Bill Clinton's transportation secretary, Rodney Slater. And staffers in Reed's office say they have been swapping phone calls and emails with Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, talking about what San Jose needs in the stimulus package.
"Where we don't have a personal connection with the president, we do have a number of folks who have access to folks in the administration who are making those decisions," said Jeff Janssen, the mayor's senior policy adviser.
Janssen and the mayor are scheduling several trips to D.C. this year. The first will take place in late February or early March, when the mayor is planning to meet with key players in the Federal Transportation Authority, as well as the congressional delegation and energy secretary, Janssen said.
"We have enough people in key decisions to help set the direction so our projects are in the favorable light," Janssen said.
On Thursday, House Democrats proposed a $825 billion stimulus package, with the bulk of it going to schools and highways, neither of which would boost green-tech jobs or mass transit projects in Silicon Valley.
However, lawmakers, who will be negotiating the stimulus package for the next four weeks, have hinted that the price tag of the package could rise before reaching Obama's desk, which could mean more money for mass transit and clean-tech projects.
"If we get lucky in the stimulus, BART could be accelerated," Reed says, "if there is a focus of mass transit, which Obama has talked about."
However, other BART supporters are doubtful that the project could get money from the stimulus package.
The president has said he wants "shovel-ready projects" to be funded through the stimulus package, meaning projects that are ready to start construction within six months. That often means piecemeal projects like pothole repairs.
Even in a best-case scenario, BART is several years away from construction.
Even Janssen seems to believe his boss might be overly optimistic. "I don't expect we would have BART funding in the stimulus," Janssen says "because we are hearing they want projects they are ready to build in six months. And we are not ready to put shovels in the ground."
That's not to say the project doesn't have a shot at getting money from the feds.
Janssen and other BART loyalists have noted that the Silicon Valley's congressional leaders have long been supportive of the mass transit line, which will carry more than 100,000 passengers daily between Fremont and Santa Clara by 2030. In addition, it's a poster-child project for the green movement: rail is the most efficient way to move commuters, and means gas savings and cleaner air.
The federal government refused to put up the $750 million toward the project until BART leaders could show they had the money to operate the trains. And measure B provides the $50 million needed to run the trains, says Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which took the lead on the BART campaign.
If BART doesn't get squeezed into the stimulus funding, BART supporters will work to get the project included in other federal transportation programs.
"This is going to register even stronger now that the local funds are secure," Guardino said. "That was always the biggest stumbling block and that legitimate concern has been addressed."
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