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Downtown rail extension route to Salesforce Transit Center wins approval

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The San Francisco Transportation Authority on Tuesday backed one of three route options for the downtown extension of Caltrain tracks to the Salesforce Transit Center. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

After more than a decade of planning — with some studies and approvals dating back to 2004 — San Francisco officials have finally settled on a route for a Caltrain extension that could also eventually bring high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco.

The first major step toward actually running trains to the Salesforce Transit Center from the current Caltrain station at 4th and King streets was taken Tuesday, when a city transportation board granted a key first approval for a plan to dig a subway tunnel connecting them.

Once constructed, the tunnel, known as the downtown extension, will connect the $77 billion high speed rail system and newly electrified Caltrain cars to the gleaming new transit center, which so far only serves city and regional bus lines.

With the future in mind, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority voted unanimously to adopt the downtown extension along Pennsylvania Avenue as its preferred tunneling route.

John Rahaim, director of the San Francisco Planning Department, has previously described the choice as a “100-year decision.”

The Planning Department has for years now considered three route choices, each with different costs and different construction impacts downtown.

SEE RELATED: Buses to take center stage at Salesforce Transit Center debut

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the transportation authority board, said The City moved cautiously and “deliberately” in approving the downtown extension, as Phase 1 of the project — the transit center itself — was rife with “massive cost overruns and delays.”

“We are aware if we don’t succeed,” he said, “we will have built the most expensive public works project since the Egyptian pyramids — a bus terminal.”

The route the transportation authority approved Tuesday will run the $6.1 billion construction project along Pennsylvania Avenue. That alignment was the second most expensive of the available options but also the one with the least construction impact on the street level in the growing Mission Bay area.

All three of the rail alignments the Planning Department considered would have terminated with a tunnel at the Salesforce Transit Center, traveled underground between Mission and Howard streets, veered southeast down Second Street, and turned south at Townsend Street.

SEE RELATED: Three route options presented for downtown rail extension

But the three options differed after that: a $5.1 billion surface rail alignment would have sent high speed rail trains through city traffic in Mission Bay, a neighborhood expected to add 20,000 new homes in coming years, while the Pennsylvania Avenue alignment keeps trains underground beneath Mission Bay. A third alternative, and the most expensive at $9.3 billion dollars, would have run rail from South of Market underneath AT&T Park down Third Street, near the Chase Center.

The Pennsylvania Avenue alignment has an expected completion date of 2027. This option will impact 12 city blocks with surface construction, versus 53 blocks which would have been impacted by the surface alignment.

While the decision passed with little fanfare, a handful of public commenters offered praise for the Pennsylvania Avenue route. Peter Straus, from the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group, told the board, “we are a little frustrated it has taken so long to come before you,” but said the decision was momentous nonetheless.

“San Francisco’s decision on this project puts this on the critical path,” Straus said.

The vote by the transportation authority board, whose members also make up the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is not the only approval needed for the project to move forward. Rahaim told the San Francisco Examiner that multiple regional, state and city partners will need to give their stamp of approval.

But, he noted, Tuesday’s vote is “the important first step in the process.”

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