Getting DTX Back on Track

Connecting the 78-mile long Caltrain line via a 1.3 mile extension to the nine Muni and BART subway lines, the Market streetcars and dozens of bus lines in downtown San Francisco has been a San Francisco transportation objective for over 40 years. In 1999 the voters of San Francisco approved the idea by an overwhelming 69.3%. Since then tens of thousands of new transit-oriented housing units and 19 major highrise buildings either already exist or are under development in the immediate vicinity of the new Salesforce Transit Center.
 

Yet the Center’s vast underground train levels sit bleak and empty awaiting the arrival of passenger trains to link Silicon Valley, the San Mateo Peninsula and downtown San Francisco. Recently, thanks in large part to conflicts among various elements of San Francisco’s government, the Caltrain extension project (DTX) appears to have once again ground to a halt.

 
 
 

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Transportation Hot Topics

 

At SaveMuni’s August  21, 2017 meeting, members were updated on three key transportation issues.  The meeting was well attended and the discussions lively.  A few of the highlights:

1.)  ConnectSF:  ConnectSF is a City Hall program run by the SFMTA, SFCTA and Planning Department.  The Study is intended to help San Francisco’s government with its long range planning, a challenging assignment under the best of circumstances.  The SFMTA’s Grahm Satterwhite briefed us about ConnectSF.  Here is what we took from the question and answer period that followed:

  • “How big is the Task Force charged with advancing the program?” Answer:   110 participants, including “future thinkers”; representatives of the transportation agencies, SF Planning Department and Mayor’s Office, as well as selected individuals from certain advocacy groups, neighborhood groups, environmental groups and the general public.
  • “Who picked the Task Force members?” Answer: The Task Force was organized by the three above-listed city agencies with input from Mayor’s office and Board of Supervisors.
  • Since the consultant hired by ConnectSF assists only with “strategy, who provides the technical support needed to successfully complete the project?” Answer: The transportation agencies.
  • “What about the damaging things currently being done to San Francisco? Won’t present City Hall policies and practices undermine efforts to bring about a viable transportation/land use future for the city?” Answer:  ConnectSF was formed to help establish a better transportation/land use condition for San Francisco 50 years from now.  It is hoped that in the meantime others will exercise good transportation and land use judgment.
  • A collection of large developments is slated to rise at Van Ness and Market, one of the best-served public transit intersections in San Francisco. (In fact so well served that it is commonly called “The Hub”, short for Transit Hub).  Yet current Planning Department rules reportedly permit at least 1,680 parking places to be built in the immediate vicinity of this key intersection.  “What will ConnectSF have to say about this and other violations of the City’s Transit First Policy and good planning principles?”  Answer:  In order to focus on long range planning it is necessary to leave today’s actions and problems to others.
  • “Why weren’t SaveMuni, the CSFN, the Sierra Club and other groups given an opportunity to designate representatives to sit on the Task Force?” Answer:  We selected a group of people whom we thought would appropriately represent the public.
  • “How were the ‘Advocacy Groups’ selected?” Answer:  We selected them pursuant to advice from the Mayor’s office.
  • “Can someone provide a list of Task Force members?”  David Pilpel, who along with Howard Wong is a member of the Task Force, offered to provide a list on or before the September 18th SaveMuni meeting.

At the meeting it was clear that SaveMuni supports long range transportation planning.  However, a number of those present expressed dismay at what appeared to be a major disconnect between ConnectSF and today’s ongoing and near-term transportation problems.

 

 

2.)  F-Line Extension:  Rick Laubscher gave a spirited overview of plans to extend the F-Line from its existing terminal at Fisherman’s Wharf through the existing Fort Mason Tunnel to the popular Fort Mason Center.  Mr. Laubscher pointed out that because of the availability of unused rail right-of-way, tunnel and trackage, the cost of the extension was estimated to be a relatively modest $80 – $90 million.  He added that the proposed changes could significantly enhance service on both the E-Line and F-Line and eventually make it possible to get all the way from Caltrain’s  4th and King station to the Fort Mason Center without a transfer.  Howard Wong reminded us that the extension would also facilitate transfers from the waterfront lines to the important Van Ness Avenue cross town bus lines.

SaveMuni’s response to the proposed extension of the F-Line was very positive. 

3.)  Geary BRT:  David Dippel brought SaveMuni up to date on this major project of long standing, noting that the first Court date for “San Franciscans for Sensible Transit” lawsuit against the Department of City Planning for CEQA violations will occur on September 18, 2017.  Response to Questions:

  • “What is the purpose of the lawsuit?” Answer:  To require the City to correct its CEQA procedural violations.
  • “Would you prefer to see the project modified or stopped entirely”: Answer:  modified, but in significant ways.

SaveMuni expressed its appreciation to the presenters for taking the time to brief us on three important transportation issues and for their willingness to take on and try to answer our not always easy questions.

EIR’s and the Damage They Cause

(Updated September 8 2017)

In the mid-20th Century, brutally insensitive highway-building and other big projects were ripping California to shreds. If you’re too young to remember this, take a trip across the Bay and observe what Highways  24, I-880, I-580, I-80 and I-980 did  to Oakland.

In 1970, to protect California cities and countrysides from the wanton destruction being caused by highway-builders, destructive public and private developments and the pollution industry, the California Legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act.  In principle this made good sense.  The idea was that all elements of a highway or other major project would be described, publicized and evaluated ahead of time…..before the bulldozers arrived.

Unfortunately this spawned a whole new industry of eager Environmental Impact Report (EIR) writers, often unschooled in the complexities of major engineering enterprises. Despite being managed by technically-challenged planners, the EIR soon came to be regarded as a convenient place for locating all aspects of a conceptual design.  In the ensuing years this led to many major design errors and distortions of fact.  EIRs were and still often are poorly-organized, poorly-written, and full of irrelevancies and redundancy.  More importantly, key design elements such as surveys, geotechnical analyses, structural engineering, traffic counts, ridership projections, construction schedules and the all important capital and operating cost estimates are often buried among thousands of pages devoted to profusely describing virtually everything imaginable about the candidate projects.

Time has shown that an important technical specialty buried in a two-thousand page EIR does not carry the same weight as a well-publicized, stand-alone document.  To make matters worse, key technical assignments are often doled out to sub-consultants who lack the qualifications and experience needed to successfully complete their assignments.  The inevitable result of this careless approach to the technical aspects of major projects often leads to major design mistakes, unrealistic schedules and unsupported “low-ball” cost estimates.

In the past it was not this way.  Geotechnical reports, long recognized as vital to the success of projects, were prepared with care and given close attention.  Engineering firms had control over and were 100% responsible for all elements of their engineering designs.  The checking of drawings and other design elements was rigorous and comprehensive.  Cost estimating was a careful and exacting process.

This highly disciplined approach is still used today….by competitive bid construction contractors for whom guess work and carelessness would soon put them out of business.

When buried in EIRs, critically-important engineering design, cost and scheduling elements of large projects often do not receive the attention, scrutiny and evaluation they deserve.