A plan to extend Caltrain to downtown San Francisco has been in the works more than 15 years, but nothing has come to fruition. (Jeff Chiu/2013 AP)

Grandiose study seeks to derail Caltrain extension to downtown San Francisco

Early in the 20th century, Southern Pacific built its Market Street landmark as a terminal for trains from the Peninsula. In the 1970s and ’80s, dreams of downtown rail service — now known as Caltrain — were revived, with detailed studies charting the route trains would take and the means for financing the extension from Caltrain’s current terminus at 4th and King streets

By 1999, San Francisco voters reached a consensus. Proposition H, which passed by nearly 70 percent, required The City to make downtown Caltrain its highest transit priority. Detailed planning, environmental assessments and scores of community meetings resulted in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s designation as one of the Bay Area’s two highest transit priorities.

For the past 15 years, San Francisco officials, while paying lip service to the Caltrain extension, have done little to see that it happened.

In 2014, the Planning Department began a multiyear study that can only undermine plans for bringing Caltrain downtown. The grandiose Railyards/I-280 study just saw the light of day, eight months behind schedule, at a raucous meeting on Potrero Hill. Furious neighbors chastised the secretive planners for lack of details to support their schemes to tear down ramps for I-280, move the existing railyards and force a new route for Caltrain over to 3rd Street to stop in front of a proposed Warriors basketball arena.

Private estimates of the new Caltrain route put additional costs at up to $6 billion over the current, approved route. And while San Francisco dithers, federal funding of $650 million needed to complete construction of the Caltrain extension hangs in the balance.

A new administration in Washington next year will bring new priorities for transportation, so the hard-won place on the list for federal funds for the Caltrain extension may well be lost.

Is San Francisco willing to commit funds to see this project completed? Or by standing in the way, will The City’s politicians derail a vital regional project that has been more than a century in the making?

Bob Feinbaum is co-founder of Bay Area Transportation Working Group.

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