Transbay Transit Center, Destined to be San Francisco’s Big Empty?
Under the Lee Administration transportation in San Francisco is heading toward a cliff. For starters, City Hall is neglecting, if not actively impeding, the downtown extension of Caltrain (DTX), a project that would connect Caltrain to 6 Muni rail lines, 4 BART lines and over 40 bus lines at the new Transbay Transit Center in the middle of San Francisco’s 340,000 person employment center.
In November 1999 the SF voters recognized the value of DTX by approving Prop H by 69.3%. Prop H specifically calls for Caltrain to be extended to the new Transbay Transit Center (TTC) at First and Mission Streets. In November 2003 the SF voters approved Prop K by 75%, which provided $270 million for the extension. In June 2010 the SF Voters approved Prop G, calling for high-speed trains to also terminate at the TTC. This measure was approved by an overwhelming 83.8%. Yet it appears that the public policy implicit in these three Propositions was lost on City Hall.
At a recent meeting SF Supervisor Jane Kim was asked why City Hall was so “ambivalent” toward the long-awaited DTX project. Her answer was “we all support DTX but it’s very expensive and we don’t know where we can find the money”. Kim’s answer is reflective of City Hall’s apparent lack of understanding of the importance of DTX to San Francisco and the Region. In the first place it doesn’t explain why in the 16 years after Prop. H passed the City has contributed only 2.8% of TTC/DTX’s cost, compared to the 34.8% allocation it has already made to the SFMTA’s low ridership Third Street/Central Subway project. Nor does it explain why even today City officials talk of finding additional funds to extend the Central Subway, build Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Van Ness and Geary, bring the Warriors to town, “beautify our streets”and build a subway into the privately-owned Park Merced development, all while seldom if ever mentioning DTX.
Is City Hall hoping that some outside entity will swoop in and save San Francisco from its own passivity? Is it failing to recognize how embarrassingly empty and lifeless its huge new Transbay Transit Center would be without the trains and their tens of thousands of daily riders, especially given AC Transit’s inconsequential 20,000 transbay bus riders a day?
Or has it forgotten about the tens of thousands of additional Peninsula motorists who would be driving into San Francisco by 2030 if the Caltrain/San Francisco interface doesn’t get a whole lot better than it is today? The fact that more street congestion would inevitably result in further Muni slowdowns is apparently of no concern to City Hall. On the contrary it appears that San Francisco’s politicians are currently focused much more on development and helping developers than on the plight of constituents and others trying to access and move about in San Francisco.
It’s not always been that way. A few years ago the City and County of San Francisco appropriately identified DTX as its No. 1 candidate for federal New Starts funding. MTC ratified the selection and the Federal Transit Administration subsequently approved it. Moreover the DTX project has long enjoyed the strong support of both California Senators and as well as that of SF Congressperson Nancy Pelosi. In Sacramento, DTX is also recognized as a project of high importance to the Bay Area and the rest of Northern California. In addition, as indicated above, it has long been supported by the San Francisco electorate. About the only place where DTX seems to have fallen out of favor is with the relatively small number of politicians who currently occupy City Hall.
The financing needed to complete the DTX project will come from a variety of sources, including the City and County of San Francisco, the Transbay Mello Roos District, San Mateo County, Bridge Tolls, Caltrain surcharges, California Cap and Trade funds, CAHSRA (if it survives), the federal New Starts Program and private investors. San Francisco has the savvy and political heft needed to pull the DTX program together. But it will take effort and it will take leadership. If San Francisco gets going on this, DTX construction could begin in the next 18 to 24 months and the Caltrain trains could be up and running in the TTC by 2023.