San Francisco Ready to Begin Construction on Transbay Terminal

» But city lacks funds to construct underground train box necessary for future downtown high-speed rail connection.

In 2003, San Francisco voters approved Proposition K, agreeing to increase local sales taxes for the purpose of funding the new Transbay Transit Center, which would link bus and rail lines just south of the financial district. Six and a half years later, the city has finally managed to assemble adequate funding to pay for the first phase of the project’s construction, and work could begin as early as March.

There’s just one problem: while the impressive plans for the overground bus center have been funded, no one has found the money to pay for a 1.3-mile rail link from the existing Caltrain commuter rail terminus a few blocks south. That connection was mandated by Proposition K. Yet there may be some advantages to pushing off the construction of the rail link.

To be completed in 2015, the Transbay Center will include a four-block-long, four-story building that will allow commuters better bus service across the bay and towards the rest of the country — Greyhound, AC Transit, SamTrans, and Golden Gate Transit will all center their operations there. Underground passages will connect to BART and Muni Metro lines on Market Street, and a huge elevated park will sit above. At around $1.2 billion, the structure is a huge investment, but it is vital to the city planning department’s project to extend downtown’s reach south. Current plans suggest at least a half-dozen new skyscrapers on site, including a 1,200-foot tower directly on top of the Center.

In many ways, though, the centrality of the Transbay complex can only be confirmed with the completion of the Downtown Extension of Caltrain, which will allow direct downtown-to-downtown San Francisco to San Jose service. That project, to be built between 2014 and 2019, would increase total costs to $4.2 billion and would be partially funded by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which intends to use the link to allow intercity travelers from southern California easier access into the Bay Area’s biggest business district. The existing Caltrain terminus, at 4th and King Streets, is relatively far from the center of downtown, possibly limiting ridership.

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which is paying for the Center, is supposed to include a “train box” below the bus terminal that would eventually be filled in as the high-speed rail terminus. Unless the federal government agrees to pay $400 million in stimulus funds for that project, though, the building will be built without future space for trains.

This could pose huge difficulties for future downtown rail access. For one, it would increase costs significantly whenever funds are found for the train link, since the station would have to be constructed underneath an already built structure — a problem that would be avoided if the box were built in association with the bus terminal above.

At the moment, this higher-cost outcome seems inevitable, because the federal government has bigger priorities than spending 1/16th of its total $8 billion in high-speed rail funds on a one-mile, one-city project and seems unlikely to fund the line. On the other hand, Proposition K clearly requires the construction of the train tunnel, meaning that it has to be completed at some point. This is disappointing from the perspective of economic efficiency, but it seems unreasonable to expect the Transbay Center to be delayed in order to wait for the rail funds.

In some ways, though, this outcome could be favorable. For one, there are some advantages of using the 4th and King station for high-speed rail service, at least in the short-term. With the Central Subway, whose construction will soon begin, passengers arriving there will have direct light rail service to the hub of the Financial Center, Union Square, and Chinatown via two Muni Metro lines. Meanwhile, the decision to postpone the construction of the Downtown Extension would reduce the costs of the California High-Speed Rail project, whose primary focus should be completing the Central Valley segment between Modesto and Palmdale — the 250-mile corridor along which trains will be able to accelerate to their top speeds.

Even if the San Francisco terminus is peripheral to the downtown, commuters will take advantage of the high-speed service in droves, but only if it achieves 2h40 travel times to Los Angeles. With limited state and federal funds, keeping costs to a minimum may be necessary for that to happen.

Similarly, the construction of the downtown link should probably wait until there is a more concerted thought process about the future of transportation in the Bay Area. In 2009, there was some conflict between the Rail Authority and the Transbay proponents, because the Authority claimed that the number of platforms planned for the center simply wasn’t large enough to handle planned high-speed service in the city. This concern may have been overstated, but if true, it would force the authority to make the 4th and King station a terminus for some peak-hour service.

The train box shouldn’t be built until the Authority confirms that the basement of the Transbay Center is the ideal location for downtown service, and until there are further studies completed about the best alignments for trains. Voters may have to rescind their requirement that train service terminate at the Center if the Authority chooses a different corridor — but this may be worth it if a cheaper, more effective location for high-speed trains is found.

Moreover, if San Francisco is serious about promoting itself as the West Coast’s Manhattan, it will need added transit capacity in the future, which is why a second Transbay Tube and a BART heavy rail line down Geary Boulevard has been brought up repeatedly by groups pushing for the expansion of economic activity downtown. The new Tube would have the added benefit of allowing high-speed trains to continue into Oakland and eventually on to Sacramento.

Indeed, building a Tube and a new BART line in connection with the high-speed extension, rather than completing the two projects separately, will save a lot more money than will be lost by delaying the train box underneath Transbay. If the Downtown Extension were built with provisions for BART, the latter project, which would relieve the overtaxed Market Street lines, would be easier to implement in the future. Existing plans do not put such a project in consideration.

There are good reasons to insist on ensuring rail access to Transbay as quickly as possible, but San Francisco might do well in considering a combination of that ambition with plans for a BART extension. This is a bet that could pay off big: In the long term, it would save money and it would result in vastly improved connectivity across the Bay Area.

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The problem with Transbay Terminal isn’t platform space; it’s the station throat, which restricts train throughput because of its sharp curves and conflict-encouraging track layout.

  • Karl Tingwald

    Good post Yonah.

    Combining the extension of Caltrain with a new BART Transbay Tube is an interesting idea, although it may prove to be impossible. A new tube under the bay may cost 8 billion dollars or more, especially if it has four tracks, two for BART and two for Amtrak and California High Speed Rail. Projects of this scale are underway in New York (East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, Access to the Region’s Core), but nowhere else in the US has the FTA approved such massive projects.

    As such, funding would be a massive hurdle for this new tube so waiting to build the prop K mandated Caltrain extension until funding for the tube was available, in my opinion, is not beneficial.

  • jon

    What would be the best alignment if the HSR/Caltrain rail line were to eventually be extended under the bay to Oakland? I think it makes more sense to extend the SF HSR trains to an Oakland HSR terminus rather than build yet another branch (coming up from the South) to serve just the East Bay. I know there has been a lot of talk of an additional Transbay Tube for non-BART trains, if so that should/would shape the design of the new Transbay Center, as far as being a thru-station or a terminus station.

    I recall under current Transbay Center rail plans there would be a pretty sharp 90 degree turn for trains entering the Transbay Center station, might this be problemmatic?

    Is there a set date on the closing of the existing Transbay Terminal? For all the terminal’s flaws (like the basement waiting room), it is worth noting the passing of one of the most prominent remnants of the Key System today.

    BTW, why was part of the terminal’s Bay Bridge-connecting elevated viaduct torn down about 8-10 years ago and then rebuilt as an on-ramp requiring buses to come down to grade, cross the street then ramp back up to the terminal viaduct?

  • Jon, if HSR builds a new tube from SF to Oakland, then there’s no reason to stick with the Pacheco/Peninsula alignment. Altamont through Oakland would be a better choice, having all of the advantages Pacheco has over Altamont/Dumbarton (two primary Bay Area cities on one line, direct route to LA, less reliance on Union Pacific rights of way) as well as the additional advantages of the lowest SF-LA and SF-Sacramento travel time of any alignment.

  • Karl –
    I suppose my main interest in this post is simply pointing out that building the Downtown Extension without keeping in mind BART and a second Transbay Tube would be a major mistake. It’s not necessary that the two projects be built at the same time, but rather that the Downtown Extension be built in a way that could easily be expanded to connect with BART tunnels or include tunnel segments leading down Geary, etc, from the beginning. These could be at a minimal cost but save hundreds of millions of dollars in additional digging in the future.

  • Karl Tingwald

    I see. You mean going the way of RATP in Paris and building a station with platforms for future lines (a la Chatelet-Les Halles).

    The second tube needs to be higher on BART’s priority list. Although I acknowledge that the funding sources are different, the six billion for BART to San Jose, the 500 million for the Oakland Airport Connector, and the 500 million for eBART would be much more effectively spent on a new line through San Francisco and a new tube. One can wish, I suppose.

  • Winston

    Karl,

    BART is mostly built where local residents are willing to pay for it. In the case of ebart, 36% of the cost comes from Contra Costa County Sales taxes and development fees levied in Eastern Contra Costa County. Similarly, in the case of BART to San Jose a big portion of the funding is local. If San Franciscans want more BART lines they are free to contribute to building them. I’m sure if SF residents were willing to contribute 2-3 billion of their sales tax and fee money to the project then BARTD’s board would happily seek funding for the rest of the project.

    While you would no doubt move more people by investing in expanding BART within San Francisco than investing in expanding the system in the suburbs, the residents of San Francisco have shown no desire to spend their money in that way while the residents of many Bay Area suburbs have. I would also expect that BART to Livermore will not be built unless the residents of Alameda County or of the Tri-Valley area vote to tax themselves to do so.

  • Winston

    Just to expand on my previous point, in measure K only $10 million was allocated for BART improvements. In comparison, Contra Costa County dedicated around $220 million from their Measure J which is an equivalent tax. Similarly, Santa Clara and Alameda counties dedicated large amounts of money to expanding BART. Unsurprisingly, they are getting to set the priorities for BART.

  • jon

    But the Pacheco route (plus Transbay HSR) would allow for HSR to hit SJ, SF and Oakland on a single route… all 3 major Bay Area cities with one route. LA to SJ then continue up the peninsula and hit SF then across the bay to Oakland and terminate there.

    Altamont would have one branch from Fremont heading south to SJ and terminating there, while a seperate branch from Fremont heads north to SF and Oakland. So you have to split the Bay Area-bound trains up which makes no sense.

    I dont understand what people see in the Altamont route. With Pacheco, SJ is on the route of every Bay Area train and SF also sees the same number of trains as SJ.

  • So for this second transbay tube, are we talking dual-gauge track or new BART-branded standard gauge rolling stock?

    A tube just for Caltrain, HSR, and possibly Capitol Corridor trains sounds like a swell idea to me, though.

  • Karl Tingwald

    Winston,

    Like I said in my previous post, I acknowledge that the funding sources for various BART extensions vary wildly. Yes, San Francisco has barely allocated any money to BART extensions since the system was originally built but BART’s nature as a commuter-heavy system with long suburban sections means that a future second Transbay Tube would benefit commuters from the East Bay as much or more so than residents of San Francisco. The difference with eBART, the Oakland Airport Connector and BART to San Jose is they only benefit the counties in which they are being built and would magnify capacity problems in the current Transbay Tube. A second Transbay Tube would benefit the entire region, doubling the core capacity of BART. Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties split up the cost of the original BART system because projects in some areas (i.e. Market Street Subway in Downtown San Francisco) benefited other areas in different counties (i.e. suburban growth in Central Contra Costa County). This idea remains true. A three-county (perhaps also including Santa Clara and San Mateo counties) funding plan should be used for the new tube. Under such a plan much of the money for eBART, the Oakland Airport Connector and BART to San Jose could be used for the second tube.

  • As someone who commuted through 4th & King station for many years, and who devoted a couple of years to an organisation called Peninsula Rail 2000 (back when 2000 signified an ambitious and glorious future), I shudder at the suggestion that the Transbay Terminal trainbox be dependent on something as distant, speculative, and expensive as a second transbay tube.

    The city is growing toward 4th & King, and you could probably argue that 4th & King’s relationship to downtown will soon be no worse than that of LA Union Station to downtown LA: very much on the edge, with parts of downtown a long walk away. But LA Union Station will have the Red/Purple Line subway as a very fast connection into the downtown core and to key destinations beyond. The Red Line also has the capacity to take trainloads of people all at once.

    Even with the Central Subway, I have trouble seeing how the surface LRT lines around 4th & King are supposed to drain large trainloads full of people arriving all at once from HSRs and Caltrains that terminate there. This has always been an issue for CalTrain. I suppose that the loads will divide across trains going in Central Subway and others going Embarcadero, but these are still slow surface lines limited to two-car trains, and a poor fit for much larger Caltrain/HSR loads coming in at low frequencies. (Muni could in theory run longer trains just Caltrain – Castro, but again the real problem is that this capacity is needed only when a Caltrain or HSR comes in, and Muni needs to run much more frequently than that to ensure that they have a departure close to when those arrivals occur. There is no way that long LRT trains specifically timed to meet a Caltrain or HSR would fit into the Muni Metro service pattern. Note that service on the Southern Embarcadero section was cut back in the last service change.)

    A 4th & King terminus for HSR would also require most/all HSRs to stop at Millbrae, as this would be the only direct connection with BART.

    Perhaps I’m stuck in the 20th Century on this, but forgoing the train box is a very bad deal, and tying it to a BART tube is just a rationalisation for inaction. In the current real estate market, I’m not sure what the rush is.

  • jon

    But assuming that in the future there was a Transbay Tube and the Transbay Center became a thru-station for some trains and a terminus for others (much like NYC Penn Station), would the 6-8 tracks inside the train box be enough? Where could additional tracks be added especially if you have intensive development above in the form of the new terminal and redevelopment?

    Whether this happens or not, regardless of timeframe, this needs to at least be thought out in case it did happen. You dont want the new Transbay Center to severely limit future capacity because of inadequate long term planning now.

    I could see most if not all Caltrain trains going thru the tunnel and heading north to a Richmond terminal. Perhaps another SJ-SF route via Oakland and Hayward making few stops (functioning more or less as a SF-SJ express for Caltrain and BART to SJ). Some ACE trains starting in SF via Peninsula/Dumbarton route. Some Capitol Corridor and all San Jouquin trains start in SF. HSR under the bay to an Oakland terminal. Assuming something like this, what would the track capacity need to be at the Transbay Center? Would 2 tracks in the new Transbay Tube for HSR/Caltrain/conventional rail be adequate?

  • I dont understand what people see in the Altamont route. With Pacheco, SJ is on the route of every Bay Area train and SF also sees the same number of trains as SJ.

    Altamont takes about an hour less to go from the Bay Area to Sacramento, and requires less overall construction (but more construction in Phase 1). The only major weaknesses of Altamont/Dumbarton are the splitting and the problems with building over the Dumbarton Bridge, and the second Transbay Tube is an expensive way around both problems.

    It’s okay to cut SJ out, as long as Oakland is served, and as long as the slow BART to SJ project is replaced by a modern commuter rail system capable of running express trains. SJ isn’t the center of the universe. Diridon Intergalactic may give off the impression that it is, but SF is a much larger destination.

  • > You dont want the new Transbay Center to severely limit future capacity

    It already does, as currently envisioned. SF Proposition H was to extend Caltrain downtown. What’s left of that, now that HSR has elbowed in on the deal? One platform, two tracks, ridiculously low approach speeds, and (the cherry on top!) a SINGLE bidirectional access track that must be used by every single Caltrain entering or leaving the Transbay Center.

    None of this deserves even one penny of HSR stimulus money.

  • PRE

    There is no reason to build the HSR line using a 2nd BAY tube – instead the HSR should use Altamont making it much easier to reach the East Bay and Oakland. I can’t imagine that there will ever be enough money to build a new 4-track tube in anyone’s lifetime who is reading this blog to deal with the different BART/HSR track gauges but it does make for a pretty picture. I’d love for a BART (not BRT) line on Geary as was promised 45 years ago.

  • Adirondacker12800

    I shudder at the suggestion that the Transbay Terminal trainbox be dependent on something as distant, speculative, and expensive as a second transbay tube.

    BART is at capacity now. where are additional passengers supposed to go until the distant speculative future? In the distant speculative future are the passengers from Sacramento and Stockton going to get on the over capacity BART trains or are they just going to loiter on the waterfront enjoying the view of San Francisco and then head back home?

    Altamont takes about an hour less to go from the Bay Area to Sacramento, and requires less overall construction (but more construction in Phase 1).

    An hour less assuming no upgrades to the Capitol Corridor route. It’s great for the people in Stockton. It’s better than Capitol Corridor trains for the people in Sacramento. It ignores all the people between Sacramento, Oakland and Fremont. It doesn’t address BART capacity issues or the all local all the time service pattern.

    None of this deserves even one penny of HSR stimulus money.

    Ah but it leaves the parking lots between Main and Beale, right across the street, undisturbed! Wouldn’t want to consider using parking lots for a train station would you?

  • BART is at capacity now. where are additional passengers supposed to go until the distant speculative future?

    On better-signaled BART trains, for a start. BART runs 16 tph peak through the Transbay Tube. Even ye olde IRT is capable of 25 tph on the Lexington express tracks.

    As usual, the most important question to ask isn’t “Are the alternatives cheap?” but “are the alternatives cheaper than digging new infrastructure?”.

  • PRE

    On better-signaled BART trains, for a start. BART runs 16 tph peak through the Transbay Tube. Even ye olde IRT is capable of 25 tph on the Lexington express tracks.

    Well BART’s gotta run more than 16 tph peak through the tube. The Bay Point and Pleasanton lines run a minimum of 4 trains an hour each way whenever BART is running, so 16 tph is the minimum, not the peak.

    That said, if they don’t build the HSR/Caltrain box from the start it’ll be a tremendous waste – sorta like NOT building a station at the North Beach tunnel portal. But I guess that’s how transportation planning rolls here in the Bay Area.

  • Jerard

    “Even with the Central Subway, I have trouble seeing how the surface LRT lines around 4th & King are supposed to drain large trainloads full of people arriving all at once from HSRs and Caltrains that terminate there. This has always been an issue for CalTrain. I suppose that the loads will divide across trains going in Central Subway and others going Embarcadero, but these are still slow surface lines limited to two-car trains, and a poor fit for much larger Caltrain/HSR loads coming in at low frequencies.”

    But if BART is already over capacity and will have a poor connection to this multi-billion dollar station at Transbay why should this be any different? Hell for the billions for this one station there can be a higher capacity connection between Downtown SF and 4th/King.

  • Karl Tingwald

    Alon-

    The Transbay Tube carries 24 TPH at peak hour. Richmond, Fremont and Dublin/Pleasanton trains run 4 TPH each but Pittsburg/Bay Point trains (and various short-turn permutations of the line) run at up to 12 TPH.

  • jon

    i realize SJ isnt the main city to serve, but i still think it makes a lot of sense to serve the 3 largest cities in the bay area with 1 single line.. full trains that can run very frequent because they serve all 3 major bay area cities. coming from the south via pacheco the 3 cities can all be served and linked together (and without any out of the way travel), so as far as i’m concerned pacheco is the best.

    the main goal of CA HSR is not for linking SF to Sacramento but Northern California to Southern California, sure other trips (like to/from the central valley) will be able to be made with this system but those are secondary to the longer distance trips. if one wants to go SF/oak to Sacramento then ride an improved Capitol Corridor service. altamont is not even that direct anyway between SF and Sac, way down the road a direct HSR line could be studied in the Capitol Corridor corridor linking sacramento to san francisco/oakland.

  • Winston

    The main limitation on BART’s frequency through the transbay tube is unloading the trains. The first bottleneck is access to the platforms at Montgomery and Embarcadero. BART already saturates them, leading to dangerous crowding. Improving access to these stations is a good first step. The next step should be moving to 3 doors per car, replacing the seats with sideways facing ones that will increase standee capacity and speed unloading.

  • the main goal of CA HSR is not for linking SF to Sacramento but Northern California to Southern California, sure other trips (like to/from the central valley) will be able to be made with this system but those are secondary to the longer distance trips.

    No, the main goal of CAHSR is to improve intercity transportation in California; it’s not meant to be an LA-SF airline replacement. While the biggest source of intercity traffic in California is SF-LA, SF-Sacramento is important as well; the populations served are lower, but the distances are shorter, which increases ridership. SJ-LA and Silicon Valley-LA are secondary markets, just like East Bay-LA and SF-Sacramento.

    if one wants to go SF/oak to Sacramento then ride an improved Capitol Corridor service.

    The improved CC service would cost almost as much as greenfield HSR per km, do nothing to serve Modesto or Stockton, and run slowly enough that SF-Sac HSR via Altamont would be faster even through Dumbarton.

  • Samuel Augustus Jennings

    Transbay a downtown bus station like the polluting Port Authority in NYC? Is that all this is? Surely rail transit-oriented Frisco can do better than that. Without rail link this project is a waste of taxpayers’ money…a typical US transportation fiasco and so so un-Euro. This would NEVER EVER happen in Europe or Japan where leaders are more environmentally responsible. We waste billions of dollars on useles wars and corporate crooks yet can not afford to build a train station in a world class city like San Francisco. That is sad!

  • “BART runs 16 tph peak through the Transbay Tube. Even ye olde IRT is capable of 25 tph on the Lexington express tracks.”

    This is not a signaling issue. Line capacity is governed by station capacity. The “trains per hour” limit through the Transbay Tube is set by the “trains per hour” capacity of the adjoining stations.

    As a practical matter, BART will need to find some way of reducing average “dwell time” at stations in downtown S.F. during peak periods in order to operate significantly greater numbers of trains per hour.

    “Ye olde IRT” is not the best comparison with BART. Think: number of doors per train of equivalent length. IRT cars are shorter, but have three doors per side. BART cars are longer – and have only two. A ten-car train is very roughly 800 feet long, and so would have 20 doors per side. IRT cars are roughly 50 feet long. An 800-foot formation would include 16 cars and would have 48 doors per side. NYCT does not, to the best of my knowledge, run trains “that” long, but I hope this example illustrates the problem.

    Preliminary sketches for the “next generation” of BART cars show three doors per side. That’s a start.

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