City Hall undermines the most important transportation project in half a century

Under the Ed Lee Administration, transportation in San Francisco is heading toward a cliff.

For starters, City Hall is neglecting, if not actively impeding, the downtown extension of Caltrain (DTX), a project that would connect Caltrain to six Muni rail lines, four BART lines and more than 40 bus lines at one spacious location in the middle of San Francisco’s 340,000 person employment center.

In November 1999, voters recognized the value of DTX by approving Proposition H by 69.3 percent. Prop H specifically calls for Caltrain to be extended to the new Transbay Transit Center at First and Mission streets. In November 2003, voters approved Proposition K by 75 percent, which provided $270 million for the extension. In June 2010, the voters approved Proposition G, calling for high-speed trains to also terminate at the TTC. This measure was approved by an overwhelming 83.8 percent. Yet it appears the public policy implicit in these three propositions was lost on City Hall.

At a recent meeting, Supervisor Jane Kim was asked why City Hall was so “ambivalent” toward the long-awaited DTX project. Kim replied, “We all support DTX, but it’s very expensive, and we don’t know where we can find the money.”

Kim’s answer is reflective of City Hall’s apparent lack of understanding of the importance of DTX to San Francisco and the region. It doesn’t explain why, in the 16 years after Prop. H passed, The City has contributed only 2.8 percent of the project’s cost, compared to the 34.8 percent allocation it has already made to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s low ridership Third Street/Central Subway project. Nor does it explain why even today, city officials talk of finding the additional funds needed to extend the Central Subway, build Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness and Geary, bring the Warriors to town, “beautify our streets” and send a special subway into the privately owned Park Merced development, all the while seldom, if ever, mentioning DTX.

Is City Hall hoping some outside entity will swoop in and save San Francisco from its own passivity? Is The City failing to recognize how embarrassingly empty and lifeless its huge, new Transbay Transit Center would be without the trains and their tens of thousands of daily riders, (especially given AC Transit’s inconsequential 20,000 transbay riders per day, compared to BART’s 26,000 transbay riders per peak hour)?

Or has it forgotten about the tens of thousands of additional Peninsula motorists who would be driving into The City by 2030, if the Caltrain/San Francisco interface doesn’t get a whole lot better than it is today?

The fact that more street congestion would inevitably result in more Muni slowdowns is apparently of no concern to City Hall. On the contrary, it appears that San Francisco’s politicians are currently focused on development and helping developers much more than on how their constituents and others will access and move about in San Francisco.

It has not always been that way.

A few years ago, San Francisco appropriately identified DTX as its No. 1 candidate for federal New Starts funding. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission ratified the selection, and the Federal Transit Administration subsequently approved it. Moreover, the DTX project has long enjoyed the strong support of both of California’s Senators and that of San Francisco Congressperson Nancy Pelosi.

In Sacramento, DTX is also recognized as a project of high importance to the Bay Area and the rest of Northern California. In addition it has long been supported by voters in San Francisco. About the only place where DTX seems out of favor is with the relatively small group of politicians who currently occupy City Hall.

The financing needed to complete the DTX project will come from a variety of sources, including the city and county of San Francisco, the Transbay Mello Roos District, San Mateo County, bridge tolls, Caltrain surcharges, California Cap and Trade funds, CAHSRA (if it survives), the federal New Starts Program and private investors.

San Francisco has the savvy, the financial muscle and the political clout to pull the DTX program together. But it will take effort and it will take leadership. If San Francisco gets going on this, DTX construction could begin in the next 18 to 24 months, and the Caltrain trains could be up and running in the Transbay Transit Center by 2023.

Gerald Cauthen, is co-founder of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and SaveMuni. He has managed the design and construction of Muni, San Francisco Water Department and Hetch Hetchy infrastructure projects.

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