Chronicle op-ed by Bob Feinbaum
San Francisco has been waiting for more than 100 years for trains from the Peninsula to arrive downtown. Left up to compliant planners and complacent politicians, decades more will pass before Caltrain comes to the newly built Salesforce Transit Center.
San Francisco politicians fall all over themselves giving verbal support to the downtown extension. But when it comes to leadership necessary to build the project, they are nowhere to be found.
Instead the city’s supervisors have been strangely quiet about the efforts to undermine the current, environmentally cleared route from Caltrain’s Fourth and King streets terminus to downtown.
In 2015, Mayor Ed Lee directed the San Francisco Planning Department to conduct a study to bolster his intention to move the Caltrain downtown right-of-way to Third Street to serve the Warriors’ new arena and allow his developer backers access to the lucrative 20-acre rail yards site.
Included was a proposal to tear down the off-ramps from Interstate 280 without any notion of where the 70,000 to 90,000 cars per day would wind up. Nearby communities feared traffic would clog neighborhood streets and caused such an uproar that the plan’s backers quietly shut down that half-baked idea.
After 40 months of juggling and financial manipulations, a new study has emerged. Even after taking account of “value recapture” (a fancy way of estimating possible development revenue that might arise sometime in the future) the planners couldn’t justify the huge cost of their Third Street alternative — nearly 2½ times the project’s current budget.
So planners recommended yet another alternative. The Pennsylvania Avenue Caltrain alignment would take trains via tunnel from 22nd Street to the Salesforce Transit Center, but adds $2.2 billion to the cost of the project. Planners gave no hint of a commitment from the city to shoulder the additional costs, as Berkeley did in the 1970s when that city approved bonds to put BART tracks through the downtown underground.
And, of course, the study recommended relocating the rail yards to a still unspecified location.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will be confronted with a decision sometime in coming weeks. The best course of action would be to proceed with the current plan, which keeps tracks on the surface from 22nd Street to the current station at Fourth and King streets. Then, when San Francisco identifies the money to construct the tunnel south of the station, the city could proceed with the full Pennsylvania Avenue option.
The open question is whether the supervisors and the new mayor will exert the leadership necessary to move the most important regional transit project in the Bay Area forward, or let it languish amid a welter of fanciful possibilities.