The extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco is currently derailed.
Nineteen years have passed since the passage of SF Prop H. On November 9, 1999, 69.3% of the voters defined the downtown extension of Caltrain (DTX) as San Francisco’s No. One transportation priority. The first Federal grant allocated to help build the Transbay Transit Center/Downtown Extension Project arrived two decades ago. In 2010 the Obama Administration approved an additional $400 million to pay for the construction of the huge 70-foot deep passenger train station beneath Transbay Transit Center (now called Sales Force Transit Center) at First and Mission Streets. The State of California kicked in by transferring 19 acres of State-owned downtown San Francisco land to the City, which has brought about the construction of 19 separate high rise buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Center.
August saw the opening of the SFTC. Despite the recent structural “challenges”, all who have passed through the facility have applauded its open and inviting design. In addition its unique rooftop public park has quickly become a neighborhood icon, a popular lunch destination for nearby office workers and a major stopping point for tourists and many others. But something’s missing. There are no trains and, as a result San Francisco’s outstanding high-volume intermodal terminal appears destined to operate at far below its design capacity for years if not decades to come.
The longer the extension of Caltrain is delayed, the more the Sales Force Transit Center (SFTC) will come to be regarded as a betrayal of public trust, an improper use of State and Federal transportation grants and a waste of money.
On the bright side, when the trains finally do get to downtown San Francisco there will be an immediate mode shift from auto travel to train travel. When the tens of thousands of new train riders begin passing through the new Transit Center and underground pedestrian ramps to the heart of the Financial District and the Market Street subways, the SFTC will come to life and take its place among the great passenger rail melting pots of the world. The creation of a comfortable and reliable passenger rail alternative to the ever growing number of daily automobiles flooding onto San Francisco’s streets is long overdue.
In such a situation one might expect responsible municipal and regional officials to take the lead in getting Caltrain up and running in the new Center as soon as possible. Instead of pushing up DTX costs and throwing roadblocks in front of the project, the focus could and should be on cutting costs and accelerating the project. But unfortunately that is not happening at this time. As emphasized in a letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors dated October 6, 2018, sponsored by passenger rail and transit advocacy groups Railpac, the Coalition of SF Neighborhoods, SaveMuni, the Transportation Alliance of SF and BATWG, other municipal priorities continue to get in the way. Must real estate speculation and development take precedence over extending Caltrain? Not if easing congestion, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and assuring personal mobility count for anything. The eager advocacy of some for the “full build-out” of Mission Bay cannot be allowed to interfere with DTX.
As things stand the huge train terminal beneath the Sales Force Transit Center sits quiet and empty. To get DTX under construction will take political leadership, courage, and the will to get the job done. A more detailed account of what’s gone wrong will appear in the next issue of Steel Wheels, a publication of the Rail Passengers Association of California and Nevada. Go to http://www.railpac.org.
WHAT YOU CAN DO?
Call or write SF Mayor London Breed. Call or write the SF Board of Supervisors. Call or write Jake Mackenzie, Chair of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. For more information about BATWG, please go to www.batwgblog.com.