Lee Administration Sidetracks DTX
Why is this being built?
Despite San Francisco’s housing crisis, a faltering Muni, increasingly clogged streets and the homeless problem, SPUR. a local planning group, says that “things in San Francisco are going well.” We are advised to let City Hall keep on bringing in more tall buildings, more transit, more jobs and more people because “it’s going to be OK.”
Really? Let’s take transit for instance. The most important transit expansion to come along in over half a century is the long-awaited downtown extension of Caltrain (DTX). DTX consists of a 1.3 mile long tunnel from the existing 4th and King St. terminal of the 78-mile long Caltrain line to San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center (TTC) at First and Mission. When completed, the new connection will attract tens of thousands of Peninsula and San Francisco motorists from car to train. So, one might ask, what is City Hall doing to advance DTX?
So far as we can determine, nothing.
On the contrary, instead of helping, members of the Mayor’s staff are holding DTX hostage while they sort out the future of Mission Bay with all the speed of an ailing tortoise. This delaying action appears to stem at least in part from demands of influential Mission Bay developers that the full and profitable build-out of Mission Bay take precedence over all other considerations. In 1999, 2003 and 2010 the San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved three successive propositions (H, K and G respectively), all expressing strong support for DTX. Prop H called on City Government to give DTX its highest fund-raising priority. These expressions of San Francisco public opinion have been lost on City Hall.
San Franciscans, as well as transportation experts in Sacramento, Washington DC, and elsewhere, have long recognized the importance of DTX. When Caltrain finally arrives at San Francisco’s 340,000 person employment center, near tens of thousands of nearby transit-oriented housing units, four BART lines, six Muni light rail lines and over 40 bus lines, it will become North America’s most important transit center west of New York City. As such, it will significantly reduce the need to drive into and through San Francisco. Here are six exasperating aspects of the Mission Bay program that are interfering with bringing the increasingly popular Caltrain line into downtown San Francisco:
1.) The Risky Delay: Because of strong past SF City Hall support, the DTX project is currently first in line for Bay Area federal New Starts funding. Despite this, the DTX project is currently stalled while the Lee Administration’s inchoate and much delayed Mission Bay plans are defined, stewed over, sorted out, publicly vetted, environmentally-described, formally institutionally-reviewed and perhaps eventually funded. If DTX continues to be locally impeded in this way, it will sooner or later be knocked out of the New Starts running by a “ready-to-go” project in some other city. Current expectations are that, if the Mayor and his inexperienced Mission Bay planners persist, they will delay DTX by at least 20 years and increase the cost of getting Caltrain downtown by at least $3 billion.
2.) Trip Times: One hears that Mission Bay planning will result in reduced train trip times. How? By how many seconds? And at what cost?!
3.) Criticisms of TTC/DTX: The Mission Bay planners have no experience in engineering design, passenger rail operations or construction cost estimating. Yet in the furtherance of their Mission Bay goals, they often take gratuitous slaps at the TTC/DTX program. Such criticisms are not helpful.
4.) Traffic Impact of Removing I-280: According to MTC, by 2035, 253,000 automobiles will be entering San Francisco from the south every day. I-280 currently carries a significant percentage of the load. If the entire north end of I-280 is removed as SPUR and the Mayor’s planners desire, what happens to all that traffic? How would it affect the Mission and Potrero Districts? How would it affect Mission Bay?
5.) Traffic Impact of the Arena: The Warriors Arena, planned for a location east of 16th Street, has been eagerly promoted by San Francisco’s politicians. Its backers boast that it will play host to no fewer than 225 major events a year. If things go ahead as planned each of these events would attract thousands of cars to Mission Bay, often during afternoon heavy rush periods. Despite City Hall efforts to obfuscate the fact, this monumental squeeze would create massive new traffic jams and parking agonies.
On January 8, 2016 the Mission Bay Alliance filed a lawsuit demanding that the Arena developers take the environmental impact of their facility seriously. This action has brought the project to a halt. On January 16th, just 8 days after the lawsuit was filed, the developers put their project on hold, in order to give themselves time to deal with environmental issues previously ignored.
6.) Impact of Eliminating the 4th and King Rail Yard: In accordance with the demands of Mission Bay developers that “there be no visible railroad tracks in Mission Bay”, the Mayor’s planners say they want to move Caltrain’s north-end existing rail yard to some distant site outside San Francisco. This reveals an abysmal lack of understanding of passenger rail operations and the need for strategically-located, train marshalling and storage. Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority are understandably opposed to the idea. Mission Bay can be “built-out” without destroying San Francisco’s end of Caltrain in the process.
Conclusion: DTX is by far the most important transit-integrating project to come along in the Bay Area since the original BART system was conceived in the 1950’s. It’s now been 16 years since the voters of San Francisco began expressing their strongly pro-DTX views. Instead of allowing themselves to be being swept up in Mission Bay development euphoria, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who care about San Francisco should turn their attention to resolving its worsening transportation and land use problems.
Beginning with getting DTX funded and built without further delay. If City Hall gets behind DTX, the Caltrain trains could be up and running in the TTC by 2023.
— Gerald Cauthen, PE