This essay series is primarily focused on the dynamics between urban politics and powerful companies.

Is San Jose a particularly cyberpunk city? Not really, especially not compared to the metropolises of Tokyo or Hong Kong. If I were to call an American city cyberpunk, San Francisco is closer to the mark, visually. But beyond aesthetics, I find San Jose is worth our attention: a city larger than neighboring SF, home to some of the wealthiest people in the country, and one of the world’s foremost tech capitals.

Part 1 explores the unique pull San Jose exerts on the federal government, in an era oft-characterized by general apathy on the part of the federal government to American cities. You can read Part 2 here.

Introduction

The cities of today are typically seen in a state of decline: more people live in the suburbs than the cities, cities are increasingly inequitable, cities are culturally shadows of what they once were when they were homes of industry. Philadelphia in the 1990s is a perfect example: with people leaving the city en masse while the city searched for something to fill the vacancy left by de-industrialization. Cities have adapted nowadays, but many of the core issues remain the same. Yet, despite the devolution, there’s one major city in particular that is not only not failing, but is a thriving center of industry. In this city’s status as a socio-economic powerhouse may lie an influence on federal government that has since been lost on Philadelphia.

The textbook “dying city”:1990s Philadelphia

In A Prayer for the City, Buzz Bissinger outlines how a city once known as being a world leader in manufacturing has entered a seemingly irreversible state of decay, with no thanks to the federal government. David Cohen (the mayor’s right hand man), at the end of the book, points to the federal government as the main culprit behind the demise of the city[1], and Philadelphia’s struggles in successfully attaining federal development funds[2] and unsuccessfully aiming for a public-private coalition deal involving federal grants[3] seem to indicate an uneven relationship that at best is apathetic and at worst malevolent to cities.

Brief research overview

It is in jumping off from that context that I ask this: Can an industry leading city today influence federal policy, and if so, to what extent? Clues from Bissinger as well as common knowledge seem to indicate an industry leading city would be dominated by the titans of industry and/or any local big corporations. One would think at best a city would be a vehicle through which companies exert their own influence on the federal government, rather than the city bureaucracy itself substantially influencing policy—this has been my hypothesis and it seems to work with the evidence. Nonetheless, vehicle or not, it should by virtue of being the location of a concentration of leading companies warrant more of a “pull” on federal attention, namely funds, as there should be a federal interest in keeping the industry happy and the area healthy—particularly if those companies are at the forefront of the global industry. This too seems to be indicated by the evidence, but to a lesser extent.

The research seems to substantiate this: though San Jose does not seem able to substantially alter federal policy on its own, it has been able to pull the attention of federal money its way as either a vehicle for corporate interests or simply by default of its location, in a way Bissinger’s Philadelphia was unable to because of its lack of industry. I have provided several brief examples (as a smaller number of more detailed examples would not give a better picture of San Jose’s pull) that indicate today’s San Jose is not only not Rendell’s Philadelphia, it is its inverse: not just thriving, but also able to exert a pull on federal policies in a way pre-decline Philadelphia may once have.

The Patents and Trademarks Office

One strong piece of recent evidence lies not, in fact, with a grant, but with the opening of a regional patent office (under the Department of Commerce). Two press released published by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group[4] in 2012 paint a very clear picture of an industry-leading city’s “pull.”

The first press release, from February 2012, details how the city of San Jose, with significant backing from SVLG and “other regional partners” submitted a proposal to the Department of Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office to open a branch in Silicon Valley and argues in favor of the regional office with the reasoning that five of America’s top ten patent-producing cities are in Silicon Valley, and that Silicon Valley represents a unique, thriving concentration of private sector companies that will benefit from a nearby Office.[5] The second press release, from July 2012, celebrates a “Big win for the leadership group” and its affiliates (notably congressional representatives and the city officials who pushed the proposal) as the Office announced intent to build a branch in San Jose.[6] That a branch office was successfully established is no coincidence, but truly indicates a federal acknowledgement of the region’s importance—particularly, San Jose’s importance.

Caltrain’s Electrifying Grant

Where Rendell and his team fought desperately and unsuccessfully for a deal involving state and federal funding in an effort to contract out a new life for the shipyard[7], Silicon Valley’s leaders were able to procure a $647 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to electrify Caltrain tracks.[8] Though involved city leaders were not solely from San Jose, there is little doubt San Jose officials played a role in pushing for the grant—something also helped along by the strong support of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.[9] SVLG claims a large role in supporting public officials (including city officials) pushing for the grant, and it’s not hard to see why, as the project would increase the capacity of riders and better connect Silicon Valley (and specifically San Jose) to the rest of the Bay Area—a solution easier for thousands of commuters and practical for high tech companies thriving on an interconnected world.

The BART Extension’s Extensive Funding

As discussed, transport is of much importance to San Jose and Santa Clara county leaders, and in addition to funding for revamping Caltrain’s systems, city leaders have fought hard to procure federal funds for an extension of BART services to the heart of San Jose.

In 2012, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority received official confirmation of a $900 million grant awarded from the Federal Transit Authority’s New Start funding program to be used in the Berryessa Extension Project, also known as Phase 1.[10] Though the funding for the second phase of the extension (which would complete the project by extending BART to downtown San Jose) is still in the works[11], the fact that $900 million was allocated for the first phase of the project is remarkable.

San Jose’s role as a city cannot be ignored in the grant: though the Authority that formally submitted the request is an independent district managing county-wide transportation[12], its twelve-person governing board always consists of five San Jose city council members, five council members from other Santa Clara cities, and two Santa Clara County Board of Supervisor members.[13] Though the smaller Silicon Valley cities are represented, there are only five seats for 14 cities, so at any given time nearly half of San Jose’s city council[14] occupies nearly half of the Authority’s board seats. Additionally, the vice chair of the Authority is the current mayor of San Jose.[15] The Authority governs the transportation of thousands of employees of the most influential companies in the world in addition to its potential to reduce general traffic, and further connects the Bay Area, which itself is a massive economy, indicating that federal bureaucrats saw good reason to allocate the money.

The Airport

There can be no doubt of Silicon Valley’s global importance, a fact hardly lost on federal officials. The last two years have seen millions of dollars in federal grants awarded to San Jose’s airport.

In 2016, Mineta San Jose Airport received $15.3 million from two federal grants.[16] The grants from the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration are intended to enhance the airport’s security and to better the landing ground.[17]

The 2016 funding came after another grant from the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2015, totaling $1.5 million for the purpose of investigating runway safety—one of the first studies of its kind.[18] Even this comes after an August 2015 $3.4 million federal grant, again from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation for improving perimeter security.[19]

It is not surprising these grants coincide with Mineta’s growth as an international airport, with airlines such as Lufthansa,[20] Air China, or British Airways[21] adding their first nonstop international flights from San Jose in 2015 and 2016. As late as August 2017, nonstop flight routes from San Jose continue to be established by airlines[22] as the airport becomes increasingly recognized (and presumably funded). It is further unsurprising the Silicon Valley Leadership Group claims responsibility for influencing the decision by British Airways, Lufthansa, and Hainan Airlines to establish the direct flights in 2015.[23]

Conclusion

An overview of four instances of federal attention to the Silicon Valley in which the city of San Jose was involved show a unique situation. The Caltrain grant, BART grant, and opening of the PTO Silicon Valley branch show a willingness on the part of the federal government to devote significant amounts of money to a region if there is a high concentration of influential companies—if the San Jose situation is not unique to other cities, these companies will typically use the main city of the region as a platform through which the process of acquiring federal resources can officially begin, and will support or use local politicians in the effort of successfully extracting those resources. Alternatively, the federal government may more easily supply funds to services in the city when asked by local politicians simply because of the economic value, without being heavily lobbied by corporations, as is the case with San Jose’s airport.

It is important to emphasize there is a limited amount of information available regarding the actual roles different entities played in acquiring federal attention—for example, the role of SVLG may be exaggerated for political reasons by both the Group itself and local politicians. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a bare minimum conclusion here: that an industry leading city today can exert influence on federal policy if there is a cluster of like-minded corporations in or around it.

Bibliography

[1] Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City, (New York: Penguin Random House, 1998), 363.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Note: The Silicon Valley Leadership Group is a trade association of Silicon Valley companies focused on influencing public policy. As their website boasts, SVLG represents more than 400 Silicon Valley employers, which provide a third of private sector Silicon Valley jobs, and output $3 trillion to the global economy. See: http://svlg.org/about-us

[5] “Silicon Valley Leaders Propose San Jose as a Satellite Location for U.S. Patent Office,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, February 7th, 2012. http://svlg.org/silicon-valley-leaders-propose-san-jose-as-a-satellite-location-for-u-s-patent-office

[6] “Regional Patent Office for Silicon Valley; Big Win for the Leadership Group and Its Partners,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, July 2nd, 2017. http://svlg.org/regional-patent-office-for-silicon-valley-big-win-for-the-leadership-group-and-its-partners

[7] Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City, (New York: Penguin Random House, 1998), p363.

[8] Casey Tolan, “Feds approve $647 million grant for Caltrain electrification project,” The Mercury News, May 22nd, 2017. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/05/22/federal-fta-grant-caltrain-electrification/

[9] “Historic Groundbreaking for Caltrain Electrification,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, July 26th, 2017. http://svlg.org/historic-groundbreaking-for-caltrain-electrification

[10] “BART Silicon Valley Project Reaches Largest Federal Funding Milestone in VTA’s History,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, March 12th, 2012. http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/document/download/069A0000001ELYzIAO

[11] “BART Silicon Valley Phase II – Extension to San Jose and Santa Clara Project Profile,” Federal Transit Administration, February 2016. https://www.transit.dot.gov/funding/grant-programs/capital-investments/bart-silicon-valley-phase-ii-%E2%80%93-extension-san-jose-and

[12] “About VTA,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, 2017. http://www.vta.org/about-us/inside-vta/about-vta

[13] “Board of Directors,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, 2017. http://www.vta.org/get-involved/board-of-directors

[14] “City Council,” San Jose, CA, Accessed October 2017. http://www.sanjoseca.gov/index.aspx?NID=146

[15] “Board of Directors,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, 2017. http://www.vta.org/get-involved/board-of-directors

[16] Bay City News, “$15.3 Million in Federal Grants Headed to Mineta San Jose International,” NBC Bay Area News, September 26th, 2016. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/153-Million-in-Federal-Grants-Headed-to-Mineta-San-Jose-International-394828131.html

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bay City News, “San Jose Airport Gets $1.5M Federal Grant to Study Runway Safety,” NBC Bay Area News, September 17th, 2015. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/San-Jose-Airport-Gets-15M-Federal-Grant-to-Study-Runway-Safety—-328089481.html

[19] Henry K. Lee, “San Jose airport gets $3.4 million to raise height of fence,” SF Gate, August 24th, 2015. http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Mineta-San-Jose-getting-3-4M-to-improve-airport-6462710.php

[20] Gillian Edevane, “Lufthansa Unveils New Direct Flight Between San Jose and Germany,” NBC Bay Area News, October 15th, 2015. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Lufthansa-Unveils-New-Direct-Flight-Between-San-Jose-and-Germany–333131591.html

[21] Jeanne Cooper, “San Jose airport adds nonstop flights to Europe, China,” SF Gate, June 23rd, 2016. http://www.sfgate.com/travel/article/San-Jose-airport-adds-nonstop-flights-to-Europe-8321125.php

[22] George Avalos, “Southwest announces new San Jose flights, adding eight nonstop cities,” The Mercury News, August 28th, 2017. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/28/southwest-announces-new-san-jose-flights-adding-eight-non-stop-cities/

[23] “Accomplishments,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 2017. http://svlg.org/about-us/accomplishments

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