Southern Pacific completed its new headquarters building at Market and Spear Streets in 1916. The new structure included provision for a future passenger rail terminal that was never built. However people continued to talk about the need to extend the Peninsula trains (now known as Caltrain). By 1970, with the north-south freeway traffic between San Mateo and San Francisco counties steadily increasing, it was obvious that something needed to be done. A series of studies of the proposed extension ensued, with the intent of identifying the best extension route and the financing needed to add the last 1.3 mile link to the 78-mile existing Caltrain system.
By 1999, San Francisco voters had reached a consensus. Proposition H, which passed by a vote of 69.3% required that San Francisco’s elected politicians and transportation officials make the Downtown Caltrain Extension (DTX) their highest transportation priority. Detailed planning, environmental assessments, and scores of community meetings resulted in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s designation of DTX in 2013 as one of the Bay Area’s two transit priorities in line for federal New Starts funding.
Unfortunately, for the past 15 years San Francisco city officials, while paying lip service to the Caltrain extension, have done virtually nothing to advance the project. In fact, in 2014, the Planning Department began a multi-year study which is actually undermining the prospects of bringing Caltrain downtown. The Department’s Railyards/I-280 (RAB) study conducted its first public meeting on February 23, 2016, eight months behind schedule, at a raucous session on Potrero Hill. Furious neighbors chastised the secretive planners, particularly for failing to provide any cost or other details of their plans and for their proposal to tear down the north end of I-280. Also controversial were proposals to relocate the existing railyards to some as yet undefined remote location, and to spend billions of dollars relocating the Caltrain tracks to accommodate Mission Bay developers, particular the developers of a proposed basketball arena.
Private estimates of the RAB proposals put the resulting extra public cost at over $6 billion. And while San Francisco dithers, the anticipated federal New Starts funding of $650 million needed to help complete 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. By waiting passively in the wings, the city’s elected politicians threaten to derail a vital regional project that has been over a century in the making. Or they could step up and be counted as genuine backers of the vital DTX project.