The City Council will spend $20,000 to lobby for a federal transportation grant to help light-rail company CyberTran develop 13 ultralight rail stations throughout the city — a transit system, in the words of city leaders and CyberTran’s CEO, that would be clean, efficient, and create 20,000 jobs in the next decade.
Fittingly, “dream” was an oft-used word in the hour-long discussion before the council voted 4-1 to approve the funding Tuesday night.
“I believe this is a dream for residents, particularly those who are begging for jobs, praying and being so patient right now for this type of opportunities,” Councilmember Jovanka Beckles said. Beckles called CyberTran’s program “priceless” for economic development and the city’s long-term employment prospects.
But Councilmember Corky Booze, who was the lone vote against the measure, called it a different kind of dream – a “pie in the sky” gamble that was unlikely to create jobs at all. “Dreams are great, but the city of Richmond cannot afford to finance your dream,” Booze said to CyberTran CEO Neil Sinclair. “This is taking from the community instead of hiring from the community.”
CyberTran is at the heart of the ongoing feud between Booze and Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, who filed an official complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission last week alleging that Booze had decided to oppose CyberTran after the company wouldn’t contribute to his campaign.
CyberTran International’s Ultra-Light rail system features small rail vehicles that each carries about 20 passengers. In preliminary designs for a Richmond system, 11.4 miles of track and 13 stations would be spread in the city, with two main paths along Cutting Boulevard and the Richmond Parkway. Unlike BART’s straight-line tracks, CyberTran has the ability to create “siding” tracks into neighborhoods, Sinclair said. Ninety percent of Richmond’s major employers are within walking distance of the designed stations, Sinclair said.
Sinclair also projected that the $15 million development – which would involve both manufacturing the vehicles and building the system in Richmond — would create 20,000 jobs in 10 years. He said he believed the program would integrate jobs, education and training, like what the Kaiser shipyard did for the city decades ago.
“It was just the kind of company I was looking for,” Ritterman said. “We as a city are in real need of economic development. CyberTran seems to fit well in that vision of bringing Berkeley National Lab, and increasing our clean tech and green tech centers.”
Ritterman also said that he could not think of anything else that would bring the city so many jobs. “Let’s work together to make it happen,” he said.
Ritterman went to Washington D.C. with CyberTran’s team this July to lobby for the federal transportation funding. The $20,000 approved by the city Tuesday will go to the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which will seek infrastructure funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Surface Transportation Program.
Still, the funding is highly competitive and the investment can be risky. The Surface Transportation Program will keep its current funding levels until March 2012, but there is a $225 billion annual shortfall in national transportation funding, and some in Congress have proposed cutting the funds by one-third, making competition for grants even fiercer.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she embraced the vision, and hoped CyberTran could take the federal investment and add other venture capital to it. But she also said there is no ensuring that the funding will arrive.
The mayor read out a letter of commitment from CyberTran to City Manager Bill Lindsay, in which the company promised to locate their development and vehicle manufacturing facilities in Richmond. If CyberTran locates these facilities elsewhere, according to the letter, the company will repay the city its cost incurred up to $40,000. The council approved an amendment to the commitment letter, proposed by McLaughlin, that the cost should be repaid to the city plus interest if the relocation happens.
CyberTran has also received support from Congressman George Miller, Senator Barbara Boxer and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Sinclair said. The company also received funding from Department of Energy and Department of Transportation, Sinclair said.
“We have a chance of lifetime to bring this to the city of Richmond,” Senior City Planner Lori Reese-Brown said. “You saw the job numbers, that is going to happen overnight.”
Just before voting, Ritterman added to calls to seize the opportunity.
“This is a $1 trillion industry,” he said. “This technology can change transit.”