Caltrain workers move about the platforms at the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Getting DTX underway

The Bay Area Transportation Working Group (BATWG) and many San Francisco transit advocacy groups have long supported the Caltrain Downtown Extension project (DTX). DTX will create a high quality north-south alternative to driving into San Francisco. It was defined in November 1999 by 69.9 percent of the voters of San Francisco as the No. 1 transportation capital improvement priority.

Yet for the last 40 months the multi-agency Rail Alignment and Benefits study has unnecessarily delayed and obstructed DTX. And the disruption is continuing. The May 29 RAB release continues to place extra costs and other obstacles in front of DTX. Here are some ways of accelerating the process:

1) Instead of adding costs, the focus should be on cutting costs.

o The ill-considered move to add $300 million to $400 million to the cost to “protect” Second Street from cut-and-cover construction should be relegated to the Transportation Stupidities Hall of Fame. The subway connection between Fourth and King streets and the new Transbay Transit Center (TTC) should be tunneled where appropriate and excavated from the surface where appropriate. With good engineering, this can be done without undue interference to either Second or Howard streets.

o The $100 million “tunnel plug” added to facilitate possible future construction of a Pennsylvania Street tunnel was not part of the original DTX plan and therefore should be cut from the DTX budget. If and when additional funding becomes available, additional portions of the rail system can be depressed. Spending $100 million now to facilitate a future connection that might or might not ever be needed makes no sense.

o RAB wants to extend a $1 billion subway east of the TTC in order to “tie in” with an as yet undefined subaqueous rail tube. This proposal should also be rejected. Not every future city or regional action can be effectively anticipated and acted upon ahead of time.

o The mezzanine level proposed for the Fourth and King Station would cause the trackway to be 40 feet below grade. A mezzanine is not needed at this location and should be eliminated from the design.

2) RAB planning should not interfere with or delay DTX planning and design.

o The existing Caltrain rail yard at Fourth and King should remain where it is. The delay and uncertainty caused by RAB’s obsession with moving the yard to some distant and undefined location has put the entire southwest end of DTX on hold. The original DTX plan, formulated almost 20 years ago, environmentally cleared and approved by all the relevant jurisdictions, does not relocate the existing Rail Yard. A substantial rail car storage capability at the north end of the line is essential to the viability of present and future passenger rail service.

o The RAB planners want to spend another $3 billion plus to relocate the existing surface tracks under I-280 to a new subway under Pennsylvania Street. Until these funds become available, the Caltrain trackage under the I-280 freeway should remain at grade. This means either keeping the existing 16th Street/Caltrain grade crossing, or placing 16th Street under the main line tracks (RAB’s blind aversion to an attractively designed 16th Street underpass notwithstanding) .

The contention that a roadway underpass would need to be 50 feet deep and almost three quarters of a mile long is false. When existing utilities are in the way engineers do not normally dive under them, they relocate them. A typical underpass with a depth sufficient to provide adequate truck clearance would be about 30 feet deep and 1,500 feet long.

The RAB claim that rail gates would cause unacceptable traffic delays is also incorrect. Train-caused traffic delays on 16th Street would be less than those caused by many of San Francisco’s multi-phased traffic-signals.

Henceforth the RAB study should proceed in a manner that does not further impede or disrupt DTX. With political support, good planning and smart phasing, DTX can proceed expeditiously and be modified later when and as necessary.

3) If necessary, let private industry complete the DTX project. The north-south freeways in the West Bay are perpetually stacked up. Everyone agrees that there is a need for a faster and better way of traveling through the Peninsula between the South Bay and downtown San Francisco. An electrified and extended Caltrain system will meet that need. Yet the local and regional jurisdictions have dithered over DTX for almost two decades. During her tenure as TTC/DTX Director, Maria Ayerdi was the only local public official consistently committed to advancing the project.

If the public sector cannot summon the political will and demonstrate organizational skills needed to get the job done, the project should be turned over to private industry.

BATWG is confident that this would both speed up the work and cut costs.

If a group of the Bay Area’s richest high tech companies and/or executives could be persuaded to help sponsor the project, its financing would likely quickly fall into place.

BATWG ( does not oppose responsible land use improvement in Mission Bay. However, DTX has been undeservedly receiving short shrift and it’s time for that to change.

Gerald Cauthen is chair of the the Bay Area Transportation Working Group.

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