» 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.