Getting the downtown extension back on track

Connecting the 78-mile long Caltrain line via a 1.3 mile extension to the nine Muni and BART subway lines, the...

Connecting the 78-mile long Caltrain line via a 1.3 mile extension to the nine Muni and BART subway lines, the Market streetcars and dozens of bus lines in downtown San Francisco has been a San Francisco transportation objective for over 40 years. In 1999, the voters of San Francisco approved the idea by an overwhelming 69.3 percent. Since then, tens of thousands of new transit-oriented housing units and 19 major highrise buildings have been built or are under development in the immediate vicinity of the new Salesforce Transit Center.

Yet the center’s vast underground train levels sit bleak and empty awaiting the arrival of passenger trains to link Silicon Valley, the Peninsula and downtown San Francisco. Recently, thanks in large part to conflicts among various elements of San Francisco’s government, the Caltrain extension project appears to have once again ground to a halt.

At the June 25, 2019 meeting of the SF Transportation Authority Board, the CTA’s Downtown Rail Extension Peer Review Panel presented its initial “Findings and Draft Recommendations on the governance, oversight, management and project delivery of the DTX project.” Mr. John Porcari began the presentation with a clear and strong statement outlining the significant local, regional, state and national benefits that would derive from joining Caltrain to the dozens of other rail and bus lines already converging on the downtown Salesforce Transit Center. Mr. Porcari’s clear statement gave reason for hope that DTX would finally be given the attention and priority it deserves. Unfortunately, by the end of the review panel’s presentation it felt more like the beginning of still another long and complex study period including a complete overhaul of the TJPA, the engaging of a brand new set of designers and consultants, and even changing what was environmentally-approved over 15 years ago.

As former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said recently on a different subject, “it takes very little time to tear down what others have taken a long time to build.”

Getting DTX back on track will not be easy. Here’s what appears to be needed at this time.

Step One: Leadership.

What’s needed most is leadership; someone fully backed by one or more transit agencies and/or jurisdictions, with the vision to grasp and articulate the huge benefits of the project, and possessed of the stature, experience and commitment required to get the job done. The DTX project has long needed local and regional political champions committed to action. Currently it doesn’t have even one!

Things need to come into focus. The continuing confusion generated by a seemingly endless parade of neophyte planners, committees, peer reviewers, second-guessers, bureaucrats and consultants-on-the-make must end. Missing from the discussion on June 25th was a simple plan designed to get the design and construction of the environmentally-approved DTX project into final design and construction without further delay.

Knowledgeable sources report that the Federal Transportation Administration is again holding up the long-waited FTA “Record of Decision,” waiting for San Francisco to make up its mind as to what it wants to do.

Step Two: Phasing.

Large projects are normally built in phases, partly because of funding constraints, but also because it is widely recognized that holding up needed interface projects while speculating about what might happen years in the future is often unproductive or even counterproductive. The DTX project should be phased.

DTX Phase I would extend Caltrain 1.3 miles into the new downtown terminal, utilize the existing rail storage yard and operate on the existing tracks under the I-280 freeway. By 2004, this phase had been environmentally cleared and approved by all necessary local, regional, state and federal approval agencies. Since there are only a handful of practical ways to get another train system from Oakland to San Francisco, it should be relatively easy to identify and resolve any possible conflicts between DTX Phase I and a future crossing.

The estimated cost of DTX Phase I is currently put at $4.2 billion, up from less than $4 billion a year ago. Had San Francisco’s politicians supported the project when it was first submitted for design/build policy approval, the project could have been completed for less than $3 billion. Interfering with, slowing down and stopping large infrastructure projects costs the taxpayers plenty!

DTX Phase II could be used to add a proposed Pennsylvania Avenue tunnel costing at least another $2 billion if and when deemed necessary. DTX Phase II could also be used to depress the existing rail storage yard so as to free up the surface area now used to store trains for other uses.

Step Three: Outreach and fund-raising:

Under firm leadership and with the phasing uncertainties out of the way, efforts to obtain the necessary DTX Phase I funding should be stepped up. Mayor London Breed appears to be in the best position to lead in that effort.

On June 25th there was much uncertainty expressed by the peer review team over “outstanding issues,” including a proposal to reconstitute the TJPA.

This could easily become a major time-waster. PTG, the DTX design firm of record, was not involved in the Salesforce Transit Center design. The charge that the existing design team lacked tunnel design expertise was a sheer fantasy concocted by City Hall’s RAB planners. Two of PTG’s major sub-consultants — namely, Hatch Mott Macdonald and McMillen Jacobs Associates — have extensive tunnel design experience and expertise. The easiest and fastest way to get the project back in gear and up to speed would be to immediately make a strong effort to reassemble the previous design team. There is no need to start from scratch!

As was pointed out on June 25th, HSR may or may not ever get to San Francisco. In any event, thanks to the significant steps taken during Maria Ayerdi’s highly-productive years as the project’s executive director, the extension tracks and new terminal can accommodate HSR.

Is funding a problem? Sure. It always is. But once the value of the project is fully understood and the funding committed to DTX starts to grow, the rest will come.

The Bay Area Transportation Working Group’s conclusion is that the relevant local and regional jurisdictions can string things out with studies piled upon studies for additional years or decades. Or they can work together to get the DTX job done.

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

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