Caltrain tunnel project runs short of needed funds

The lack of state monies to fund a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco could stall Caltrain's arrival at the much-anticipated Transbay Terminal until 2021.

The yet-to-be built transit center at First and Mission streets, which some say will be the Grand Central Station of the West, with bus, BART, Caltrain and high-speed rail service, is expected to cost about $3.4 billion. Only around $1.5 billion of that funding is accounted for, said Maria Ayerdi, director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Much of the money needed to extend the Caltrain line from its current terminal at Fourth and Townsend to First and Mission streets via a 1.3-mile tunnel was expected to come from a high-speed rail project that would also stop at the terminal. Sacramento lawmakers, however, have delayed until 2008 a $9.95 billion bond initiative to fund the trains designed to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2.5 hours.

To keep the terminal project moving, the Transbay Joint Authority board has decided to build the transit hub first and bring Caltrain downtown later. The dilapidated bus station is scheduled to begin its transformation in 2008 into a transit jewel surrounded by 3,400 new homes, office and retail space, parks and open space and a 1,000-foot tower, the tallest in the Bay Area.

“The choice is obvious,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “They build the terminal and prepare for Caltrain.” The other alternative is building the expensive Caltrain tunnel at the expense of the whole terminal, Rentschler said.

Half of the Transbay budget, about $1.7 billion, is earmarked to cover the cost of the Caltrain tunnel, construction of which could start in 2012 or sooner.

That leaves the Caltrain extension looking for other funding sources.

For years, there's been paranoia about the commuter rail not reaching the new transit hub, despite a 1999 mandate from city voters putting the extension into law, said Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

“The City has been slow on the uptake but The City is now focused on it,” Chappell said.

Despite the current financial shortfall, Transbay enthusiasts say Caltrain will extend downtown, even before 2021. Caltrain officials have committed to serving the terminal once it has been built.

“If there's a will, there's a way,” Ayerdi said. “We're working hard to identify funding sources” to make it happen.

mcarroll@examiner.com

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