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Study rejects developer’s call to cut Caltrain downtown extension to two rails

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Passengers wait inside the Caltrain station near Fourth and King streets in San Francisco. (James Chan/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

A peer review released Tuesday found that three rail lines were needed for a Caltrain and high-speed rail extension project in downtown San Francisco, rejecting claims by a developer concerned about impacts on his property that only two were needed.

The review was unveiled at the Tuesday meeting of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board, which is among the agencies guiding construction of the Caltrain Downtown Extension project to the Transbay Transit Center.

The Transportation Authority sought the review after Rob Birmingham, who owns large swaths of property in San Francisco, complained last year that the planned extension of Caltrain and the $77 billion high speed rail project to the Salesforce Transit Center high speed rail would interfere with his Second Street properties. Birmingham wanted the project to use two tracks instead of three.

“I’m the single most impacted owner of real estate as it relates to the downtown extension in San Francisco,” he told the Transportation Authority in a September meeting last year. “I was not able to get to my satisfaction an alignment that minimized impacts on me personally.”

“The fact is that you need two tracks, not a third track, going into the [downtown extension],” Birmingham said.

In order to find a rail alignment that minimized impacts on his projects, Birmingham hired a firm from Spain to analyze the downtown extension engineering proposals, and concluded only two tracks were necessary.

However, the Transportation Authority’s peer review panel disagreed with Birmingham’s study, and concluded that three tunnel tracks are needed to provide “reliable and dependable service.” Two tracks would only be feasible, the group wrote, “provided there are no operational delays,” which is an assumption that is “not realistic.” Three tracks would allow trains opportunities to switch tracks in order to circumvent stopped trains.

“You’re going to need that third track, there’s no doubt about that,” said Eugene Skoropowski, a member of the peer review team. Skoropowski is a former senior vice president of rail operations for All Aboard Florida.

At Tuesday’s meeting, public speakers lambasted the study as a waste of time, and alleged it further delayed the rail project. Thea Selby, a board member of the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group, said the project was moving at the pace of a “banana slug.”

“The excuses are never ending,” she told the Transportation Authority, saying a Planning Department study of the project also still needs to be completed. “The peer review was another hurdle thrown in the tracks. The cry of ‘we have no money’ for the downtown extension rings loudly when all else fails.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the Transportation Authority board, replied that high speed rail is “a decision that only gets done once,” so it needs to be done “correctly.”

Transbay Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Mark Zabaneh, who is overseeing the transit center project, told the San Francisco Examiner that high speed rail is slated to arrive downtown in 2029. “Shame on us,” Zabaneh said, if the city cannot meet that target date.

Birmingham did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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