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San Francisco’s greed, Peninsula pays

written by andy on

There’s a lot going on regarding Caltrain system improvements and high speed rail. When these projects were conceived 20-30 years ago, it just seemed like all they had to do is to put up wires over the tracks and some new tunnels from the existing 4th & King terminal. Now the policy makers will be asked about common platform heights, a new tunnel alignment, and possibly moving a rail yard?

We know that the real estate in the Bay Area is hot right now, and the pressure for more development is strong. The 4th & King site is eyed as the next big development for San Francisco. If it is done right, Caltrain service needs will be addressed as a part of the plan, but there are ideas that will compromise Caltrain’s operational needs, delay critical projects, and will require regional funding to complete.

4th & King revelopment, I-280 removal

Back in 2013, an idea was shared in regards to the redevelopment of the SF Caltrain station and removal of I-280. Under that vision, the elevated freeway would be converted by an at grade boulevard (like Octavia Boulevard that replaced the Central Freeway). Given at the Caltrain tracks are currently at-grade, a subway would be extended (currently a subway would run from Transbay Terminal to 4th & King) all the way to tunnel 1 if not beyond. When the tracks are relocated, space would be freed up for the boulevard.

As part of the concept, the land where the station occupies would be freed up for development. While theoretically development is possible by decking over the train tracks, I think the SF has concluded that development in-lieu of the tracks are more profitable and desirable from the city’s perspective.

Tunnel realignment

If tracks would’ve to be put in a subway as part of the station redevelopment and freeway removal, should there be a new alignment to “straighten up” the curves? Some other folks have come up with other ideas for a straighter alignment that would travel up 3rd Street through Mission Bay. If there’s no rail station or tunnel under the current 4th & King site, perhaps more space can be devoted to the redevelopment.

While on paper it seems like straighten up the curves is a good idea, but the time saved is no more than a minute or two because of the slow track speed approaching the terminal regardless of curves. A straighter alignment would have to under water south of AT&T Park, which would likely trigger a different construction method. A major issue with the tunnel realignment is the inability to build the project in phases. If this were to go forward, even the subway under 2nd Street (which is environmentally cleared) cannot be built unless and until the remaining segment is environmentally cleared and funded.

Common platform height

San Francisco is gung-ho on the concept of common boarding height between Caltrain and high speed rail, so much so that they would prefer all the Caltrain platforms on the peninsula to be raised to match the height of high speed rail. While doing so would provide flexibility for both operators, I don’t think the benefits of flexibility are worth the hassles. Some claims that all trains must serve transbay, but under a service recovery situation, high speed trains and Caltrain trains may not have to share platforms if some Caltrain trains terminate at 4th & King and have riders transfer to other trains to serve Transbay. However, if the 4th & King redevelopment as well as the tunnel realignment were to go forward, that critical 4th & King station as a staging and service recovery location would disappear.

Stringing these ideas together

If price is no object, pushing these proposals together may result in a train system that is somewhat faster, perhaps more reliable, but certainly make the 4th & King station site more desirable and profitable for redevelopment. Caltrain owns the easement to operate trains on the 4th & King site, it does not own the rights to redevelopment. It would cost billions of public dollars to relocate rail infrastructure to free up 4th & King, but there’s no certainty that Caltrain would reap the profits from future redevelopments, especially if they no longer physically occupy the site.

At this point there’s no price tag for any of the projects, but I wouldn’t be surprised that it would cost a few billions. An extended tunnel alignment would have to go underwater and under landfill which is likely to necessitate different tunneling process. Rail yard would also have to be relocated and increase operating cost. Peninsula communities, which are far less enthusiastic over high speed rail, may have to plan and fund rebuild platforms which is something that they otherwise don’t need.

The time needed to obtain funding, as well as the time needed to conduct engineering and environmental studies, can easily set Caltrain extension to Transbay Terminal for another 10 years.

San Francisco would likely not succeed if it seems that all these plans are proposed to support 4th & King redevelopment, so they are trying hard to find other benefits to justify spending public dollars to free up 4th & King. They also have to convince Peninsula communities to fund some of the elements (high platforms and new rail yard), but the Peninsula communities need to ask what’s in it for us.

Some have suggested that high speed rail can pay for this through the HSR bond and other sources like the cap and trade funds, but High Speed Rail is a politically weak entity. Its strongest backer is Governor Jerry Brown who will be termed out in the next few years. Unless HSR can restore confidence and have projects successfully underway, there’s no certainty that the next governor will give as strong, or any support to the HSRA. If political tides change, external funding could disappear and local governments could be left holding the bag.

Things can go a long way if SF appears to be less greedy

If the city appears a bit less greedy, there can be development at 4th & King with trains underground. Train yard size can be reduced to allow storefronts on the street level and have the rest of the developments above. Once the DTX is completed, a second phase can start with removing 280 and place Caltrain underground through the area.
With this strategy the current DTX plan is not disturbed and can go forward as soon as funding is available.