Don’t pull brake cord on downtown Caltrain service

It’s taken a long time to get this far — 40 years or so since long-held dreams of a downtown San Francisco rail service were revived and detailed studies launched to map out routes and funding alternatives. And it’s been 16 years since Proposition H was approved by nearly 70 percent of the San Francisco voters, who called on city leaders to make a downtown Caltrain terminus their highest transportation priority.

But now, suddenly, with work on the multibillion dollar Transbay Transit Center at First and Mission streets going full bore and Caltrain fully committed to extending Peninsula trains into the heart of San Francisco, city officials have decided to pull the brake cord.

A new study by the Planning Department calls for the rerouting of Caltrain through Mission Bay, running it under Third Street, so it can be near the proposed Warriors arena.

Running directly under AT&T Park, the proposed new rail line would require the Fourth and King streets Caltrain station to be torn down and relocated to some less accessible, as yet undetermined location. And, for good measure, the planning study calls for dismantling the north end of Interstate 280, dumping tens of thousands of additional cars onto already clogged local streets.

It’s estimated that shifting plans midstream like this would add at least $6 billion to the cost of the already approved Caltrain extension and add years to the opening of train service in the new Transit Center. Meanwhile, $650 million in vitally needed federal funding to complete the Caltrain extension hangs in the balance.

City leaders, anxious to appease developers and pro-growth groups in Mission Bay, have clearly lost their way. Tossing aside years of environmental, logistical and financial planning and willing to play unnecessary games with critical federal funding, Mayor Ed Lee’s administration has become a pawn for billionaire real estate developers.

That’s why SaveMuni has asked to join with the Mission Bay Alliance in its lawsuit challenging the Warriors’ inadequate environmental impact report and related project approvals. In and of itself, the Warriors’ Chase Center promises to severely degrade Muni service on the T-Third line and cause a traffic nightmare for residents living in Bayview Hunters Point, Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and Mission Bay — particularly during days when the Giants play just up the road. Toss in the dismantling of I-280 and The City’s recent plans become even weaker.

SaveMuni’s opposition to the arena has nothing to do with the basketball team. This is about common sense and making the right transportation choices at a critical time in The City’s history. Switching rail routes now means further delays to a project that has taken nearly a half century to get moving.

A change in administrations in Washington next year is bound to reshuffle federal funding priorities. The City has fought hard to get the attention of federal authorities and win support for the Caltrain extension. Any dithering or uncertainty on the part of city leaders at this time will likely push San Francisco further down the funding priority list and could knock San Francisco out of the box for federal New Starts funding, thereby putting the completion of the project in doubt.

Now is not the time to change plans that have been years in the making. The City needs to follow through with its commitment to the original Caltrain route and drop its misguided proposal to tear down a key stretch of I-280. The neighborhoods deserve better.

Gerald Cauthen represents SaveMuni, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization created to help find ways of improving Muni and the other transit services leading into and serving San Francisco.