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Buses to take center stage at Salesforce Transit Center debut

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The new Salesforce Transit Center is set to open this weekend. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

From the high ceilings of Grand Central Terminal in New York City to the opulent Kazansky Railway Station in Moscow, train stations worldwide oft-resemble cathedrals or palaces — they inspire. At the other end of the transportation spectrum lie bus depots, conjuring mental images of decrepit boxy buildings and tobacco-stained walls.

That will change on Saturday when the Salesforce Transit Center, billed by city planners and officials as the “Grand Central Station” of the west, opens its doors to the public.

It is tentatively expected to host high-speed rail and numerous, gleaming electrified Caltrain cars by 2028.

Until then, however, the new transit center will be among the most opulent bus terminals ever created — and that’s no knock, said one of its architects.

“Bus users tend to be treated like second-class citizens,” said Fred Clarke, senior principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli, the firm who designed the transit center.

A view of the undulating architecture of the new Salesforce Transit Center on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Not anymore.

The $4.185 billion transit center is a major transit hub the likes San Francisco has not seen for decades. The one million square-foot facility features a 5.4-acre rooftop park, public art throughout the six-floor facility, a shining skylight, shopping, dining and more. It was conceived as a terminator for ambitious high-speed rail service from Los Angeles to Northern California, but it will debut before that dream is realized.

“This looks like one of the most beautiful terminals for buses anywhere,” said Rick Laubscher, a local transit historian and president of the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

It is, he added, the story of San Francisco’s previous transbay terminal in reverse: The original Timothy Pflueger-designed transbay terminal was the destination for three train lines from the Bay Bridge: the Key System, the Sacramento Northern Railroad, and the Interurban Electric Railroad. When those train lines stopped crossing the Bay Bridge, AC Transit buses began using the old terminal. The return of rail to the terminal is decades in the making.

A view of the light column within the grand hall of the new Salesforce Transit Center on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“When the trains come,” Laubscher added, “then it will fulfill the promises made to everyone.”

Until then, buses will take center stage.

The first floor plays host to Muni bus service from the 5-Fulton, 5R-Fulton Rapid, 7-Haight, 38-Geary, 38R-Geary Rapid lines, and by Sunday the 25-Treasure Island routes will also run to the terminal. The third floor hosts AC Transit, WestCAT and Greyhound regional bus service. Clarke and senior associate from his firm, architect Randolph Volenec, toured press in the transit center Wednesday morning. The third floor in particular is replete with flourishes to make bus service easier, Clarke pointed out.

A circular skylight brings gleaming illumination to the bus deck. But it’s the smaller features that make it unique: grooves in the floor guide the blind cane from the bus berths to the elevators, and tall kiosks display transit arrival times at each bus berth. A bus bridge connects the Willie L. Brown Jr. San Francisco Bay Bridge to the transit center, allowing the buses to sail far above The City’s traffic.

Construction equipment sits below the new bus suspension bridge linking to the Bay Bridge at the new Salesforce Transit Center on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

That ramp features a pylon with support cables descending down from it at cascading diagonals. When the San Francisco Examiner asked if that were meant to resemble the eastern span of the Bay Bridge intentionally, Clarke said it was “a bit” of an accident, but “you’re the first to make that connection.”

We’ll just say it was on purpose. Purposeful bus accoutrements were easily visible, however.

“This is the docking bay for the bus,” Clarke said, sweeping a hand to his left. The curb on the third floor is cut into a gentle, curved saw-like pattern, like repeating, swooped L’s. This engineering feature will allow green and white AC Transit buses to easily slide into one of 37 berths, and slide out just as swiftly. This solves a problem Volenec said he observed at the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, nine long years ago, on a research trip: Buses lacked the space to pull in and out easily, he said. Sometimes the New York buses needed to reverse to the curb, causing minor delays that would ripple throughout the system.

Volenec said bus movement at the new transit center is “specially engineered” to resemble “a flow, like a river.”

Speaking of rivers, an art installation in the transit center senses the rumbling buses on the third floor and activates a series of fountains lining the park on the fourth floor.

A series of fountains are timed to shoot up water as buses below rumble by at the new Salesforce Park on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

With all this recent focus on buses, Clarke said he was ready to ride one across the Bay from the new transit center when it opens to the public, Sunday, with his two adult sons and his wife Laura along for the four-wheeled ride.

“This is the week of our 48th anniversary,” he said.

And living the reality of this new Grand Central Station of the west, Clarke will spend one leg of that anniversary on a bus.

Members of the media tour the new Salesforce Park on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)


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Members of the media line up for a tour of the new Salesforce Transit Center on Wednesday, August 8, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

This story has been modified to more clearly reflect the accurate naming of the 5 and 38 Rapid route names.

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