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Fast and cheap: Getting Caltrain to Transbay Terminal … this year

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Trains sit dormant a the Caltrain station near 4th and King streets in San Francisco on May 16, 2017. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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It needn’t take a $2.5 billion tunnel construction project dragging out more than seven years to get Caltrain extended to the new Transbay Terminal. That goal could be achieved in 99 percent less time, at 99 percent less budget. In fact, the project is so simple that it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks or months to build, involving no new structures taller than a cantaloupe or excavations deeper than a watermelon. In short, there need never be an embarrassing white elephant along downtown Mission Street because trains would be running on the terminal’s first day under the interim solution proposed here. When the permanent tunnel is completed, in 2025 or so, service would be switched there.

The simple plan: Build a track less than 100 feet long at Sixth and King streets connecting existing Caltrain tracks with existing Muni tracks. Run nonstop Caltrain — blended with existing Muni service — on the N-line and soon-to-be-vacated T-line on the private right-of-way tracks along The Embarcadero, past AT&T Park to Howard Street. Signals would always show green for trains. Build three-tenths of a mile of new track along wide, level, uncomplicated Howard, terminating at Beale Street, about a half-minute walk from Transbay’s Beale Street sidewalk entrance. The transfer-rich Embarcadero BART-Muni station is an additional three-minute walk. Caltrain would turn off The Embarcadero’s Muni tracks at Howard for a safe-and-sane 10-mph, two-minute ride to Beale. They would terminate at street level, not in the future train box under the terminal.

Trains along city streets are part of history in almost all of America’s major cities. Even today, California’s eight largest cities have trains running on their streets. Pictures on the internet show long freights chugging along The Embarcadero and South of Market streets with cargo from the bustling Port of San Francisco. At safe speeds, with signalized intersections and sometimes with gates, accidents have been rare. Muni’s record — with four-unit trains crossing San Francisco intersections thousands of times daily — shows that trains on streets can be perfectly safe. Same for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the South Bay, Amtrak in the East Bay, and Caltrain on the Peninsula and near UC San Francisco.

Under this plan, many of Caltrain’s 60,000 daily passengers would pass through the new terminal daily, giving it a life and its merchants revenue. Those who ride to Transbay would save $1,200 annually in daily Muni fares. And they would gain an hour of time daily. Some rush-hour trains would continue to terminate and start at Fourth and King, because the Howard and Beale option has limited space. But mid-day, evening and weekend service is so sparse that all trains could proceed to Transbay. Those periods are when the terminal could most an infusion of activity.

Politically, Caltrain already has experience with “blended” track agreements. It has one with California High Speed Rail. In this case, Muni would have to cooperate if a deal were to be made.

Next step: The agencies funding the future tunnel should meet without delay and adopt a plan to fund the project and have trains running by the terminal’s opening day early next year. If there are issues — like height of Muni overhead wires, clearance of platform edges, optimum train lengths or signals — that’s the place to solve them. Funding — less than one percent of the permanent tunnel’s budget — is already in hand. This one is a no-brainer.

Stanford M. Horn writes on transportation and development issues.

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