If high-speed rail never happens, Transbay center will be a bus stop 

Last August, government officials from across the country descended on San Francisco for the groundbreaking of the $1.5 billion Transbay Transit Center, a hub conceived as the “Grand Central Station of the West.” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and others said it would one day house the northern terminus of California’s $43 billion high-speed rail system.

Less than a year later, those jubilant voices might have been overly optimistic.

In April, Congress erased all federal funds set aside this year for high-speed rail. That was not a good sign considering the project still needs $17 billion to $19 billion from the feds.

One month later, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a report suggesting the agency overseeing the project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, should be dissolved and replaced by Caltrans.

And there also are the ongoing planning battles on the Peninsula, where local lawmakers have forcibly voiced their support for a scaled-back high-speed rail design that could slow the speed and frequency of trains.

With those developments, many people across the state are questioning whether the high-speed rail project will ever make it to San Francisco — or even be built — and if the new Transbay Transit Center will amount to little more than a $1.5 billion bus station.

“I was certainly a lot more optimistic about the chances of high-speed rail a couple of years ago,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the transit advocacy organization Transform. “The federal funds that we thought were going to help pay for this project seem to be evaporating by the day, which definitely raises concerns about the future of this project.”

In the works for more than a decade, the initial phase of the center was designed to house 11 transit agencies and will feature a 5.4-acre rooftop garden, a five-story transit hub and nearby retail centers.

Of the $1.5 billion slated for the transit center, $105 million is coming directly from San Francisco sources, and regional funds will provide for $347 million more. Another $400 million has been set aside from the federal government to build an underground train station, designed to house Amtrak, Caltrain and high-speed rail trains.

That last $400 million particularly irks Quentin Kopp, the former state lawmaker who wrote the legislation creating the rail authority. He said funding should be spent specifically on high-speed rail projects, not to help build the transit terminal.

“That train box, if built, is likely to be unoccupied for many, many years — if it’s occupied at all,” he said.

Kopp said the high cost of extending high-speed rail underground from the terminus of Caltrain at Fourth and King streets to the terminal location will make it extremely difficult to find financing. Officials with the Transbay Transit Center said the extension project will cost $2.3 billion, but Kopp predicted a heftier price tag.

“Moving the trains just 1.3 miles will cost over $3 billion,” said Kopp, who recently stepped down as an authority board member. “Who is going to pay for that?”

Kopp said there is a 50-50 chance right now that no high-speed rail trains will ever reach the transit center, leaving the $1.5 billion project without its centerpiece — a nightmare scenario for backers of the depot.

“For the amount of money we have lobbied for this project, the Transbay Transit Center absolutely needs high-speed rail,” said Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians For High Speed Rail, an advocacy organization. “Otherwise, it’s just a really expensive bus station.”

Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the group overseeing the project development, said the agency is confident the high-speed rail project will be built — eventually.

The Transbay Transit Center is projected to be finished in 2017, and originally both Caltrain and high-speed rail were forecast to start running by 2019. But with so many uncertainties at the funding and planning levels, Ayerdi-Kaplan said high-speed rail probably won’t be active by then.

Still, she said it was a matter of when, not if, high-speed rail will be built.

“You have to take the long-term view with a project like this, just like the Golden Gate Bridge and the federal highway system,” Ayerdi-Kaplan said. “You can’t just stop a project midway through because of current uncertainties.”

Ayerdi-Kaplan said if high-speed rail isn’t completed by 2019, Caltrain or Amtrak will use the $400 million train station until the state rail project is ready to go.

Rod Diridon, a former member of the rail authority board and executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, said high-speed rail ridership will suffer significantly if the system doesn’t end at the new transit center.

“By having high-speed rail end at the transit center, we’d have a seamless transfer,” Diridon said. “Passengers could walk a block underground to get to Muni and BART. Without that, we’d have what you call a ‘transfer penalty,’ where passengers would not have as many transit options. That would have a huge impact on the number of people who use the system.”

While some backers of the plan cringe at the thought of the transit center without high-speed rail, others say the project can still succeed without it.

The center will help connect commuters from across the Bay Area, plus its plan calls for the extension of Caltrain into San Francisco’s downtown core, said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of local think-tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research and a Transbay Joint Powers Authority board member.

“This project is also about grade-separating, electrifying and extending Caltrain,” he said. “This will be a major benefit to commuters from Silicon Valley and the Peninsula.”

Metcalf also said by moving forward with plans to build it, The City will be able to leverage further federal dollars to help with the project.

“There is no question that The City is taking a risk in building this project,” he said. “But it’s an absolutely necessary risk and one with a worthwhile payoff.”

State voters might be asked for more funds

In 2008, nearly 53 percent of California voters approved a bond measure to provide $9.95 billion for the state’s high-speed rail project, an approval seen as crucial to keeping the project alive. Voters might have to do that again some day.

Officials involved in the high-speed rail initiative said supporters and opponents of the plan are pondering ballot measures that could ask voters to reaffirm their support for the project.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of transit advocacy organization Transform, said he thinks supporters will have to put the measure back before voters. Federal funding for the plan is much lower than projected, he said, and will only be tougher to obtain with the economy continuing to struggle.

So for high-speed rail to move forward, it might need to secure more funding from the state. Cohen said proponents of high-speed rail will eventually ask voters to support a revenue bond measure providing more funding for the project.

Pat Burt, chairman of the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a group opposed to the full rollout of high-speed rail in San Mateo County, said he had heard similar rumors of a ballot measure to secure more state funding for the project.

He said opposition groups also are gearing up to submit a ballot measure asking voters if they still support high-speed rail. Such a measure would seek to stop the project if a majority were now opposed to high-speed rail, Burt said.

Quentin Kopp, the former state lawmaker who authored the legislation that created the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said it would likely be four to five years before any ballot measure could gain enough support to go before voters.

“I don’t think anything would happen before 2015 or 2016,” Kopp said. “And by that time, the high-speed rail picture could look very different.”

San Mateo County outmaneuvers SF on high-speed rail

It’s been said that the San Jose-to-San Francisco corridor is ground zero for debate on the state’s high-speed rail system, but so far, the conversation has been noticeably one-sided.

Led by a trio of politicians — state Sen. Joe Simitian D-Palo Alto, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon — Peninsula lawmakers have outmaneuvered their San Francisco counterparts in talks over the rail plan.

Voicing the concerns of their constituencies, the threesome collectively opposed plans to construct a full-fledged high-speed rail system in the Peninsula. To achieve the stated goal of moving trains at 120 mph between San Jose and The City, such a system would require towering viaducts and deep tunnels, bringing in as many as 10 high-speed trains and thousands of passengers an hour to San Francisco.

But while Peninsula politicians have actively touted the merits of merging the high-speed rail system with Caltrain, San Francisco politicians have provided scant public support for the more built-up approach, an alignment that transit advocates say would be less desirable for travelers to The City’s future Transbay Transit Center.

“There has been no attention or effort in San Francisco to make sure that The City gets the high-speed rail system it needs,” said Quentin Kopp, the former state lawmaker who authored the legislation creating the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “San Francisco has been asleep at the switch; the mayor and the Board of Supervisors have been very blithe about advocating for true high-speed rail.”

However, Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, said there hasn’t been much advocacy for the full buildout because it is politically and financially infeasible.

“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Metcalf said. “While the full buildout may be an engineer’s dream, it’s going to make the project impossible to afford.”

Metcalf said the Peninsula’s preferred approach would greatly improve Caltrain service in San Mateo County, while allowing for a high-speed rail system that could be expanded when necessary.

Former Supervisor Chris Daly, who once sat on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, said one reason it might seem like the voices are muted in San Francisco is the recent turnover on that body, the group that oversees the Transbay Transit Center project. In the past year, Daly, Michael Cohen and former San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency chief Nathaniel Ford — all San Francisco representatives — stepped down.

The group has been a strong advocate for high-speed rail in San Francisco, and with relative neophytes on its board, the agency’s voice might have been diluted recently, Daly said.

One of the recent appointments was Metcalf, who has been advocating for high-speed rail for years as the director of SPUR.

Expense report for transit center, high-speed rail

$43 billion: Cost of Phase 1 of state’s high-speed rail system
$6.33 billion: Funding secured*
$1.5 billion: Cost of Phase 1 of city’s Transbay Transit Center
$105 million: San Francisco’s contribution to Transbay project
$351 million: Regional contribution to Transbay project
$400 million: Federal contribution to build train box at transit center
$2.3 billion: Cost of extending Caltrain and high-speed rail 1.3 miles underground from Fourth and King streets to Transbay Transit Center

* California voters passed a $9.95 billion bond measure for high-speed rail in 2008, but that funding can only be released if it’s matched by federal sources

Sources: CHSRA, Transbay Joint Powers Authority

Ridership projections

41 million: Projected annual ridership on high-speed rail in 2030
26,500: Daily high-speed rail ridership projected to use Transbay Transit Center by 2030
11: Transit carriers to be serviced by center

Sources: CHSRA, Transbay Joint Powers Authority

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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Will Reisman

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