SF Asks High Speed Rail to Study “Minor or Major Modifications” to I-280

Troy_Holden_color_280_small.jpgPortions of I-280 north of Cesar Chavez serve to divide city neighborhoods. Photo: Troy Holden.

At the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) meeting on Wednesday, where the public was briefed on various alignment options for bringing high speed rail to the Transbay Terminal and 4th and King station, numerous people living in Potrero Hill, Dogpatch and Showplace Triangle testified that they supported the cornerstone rail project, but didn't want it to further separate their neighborhoods. They said they didn't support the idea of depressing 16th Street or 7th Street under the tracks of the bullet train and they feared the project would add to the already significant neighborhood divide caused by Highway 101 and Interstate 280.

Several members of the public even asked the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), the state agency tasked with building the train, to tear down the portion of I-280 north of Cesar Chavez, arguing not only that it divides their neighborhoods, but it poses a serious health concern with all the pollution generated from the vehicles whipping by their homes.

Far from being just the whim of several residents, though, the City and County of San Francisco has formally requested the HSRA study "both minor and major modifications to Interstate 280, as necessary" during the environmental review process.

In a letter [PDF] signed by the directors of the SFCTA, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, the Planning Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the directors wrote: "We understand that the support columns of the Interstate 280 structure pose several obstacles along the Caltrain corridor. It is our observation that the [HSRA Alternatives Analysis] did not consider even modest modifications I-280 (sic) in order to provide the best HSR alignment and urban environment."

The directors say in the letter that their staff met with the HSRA on June 24th to present "alternative concepts" that would meet the city's objectives for the project.

Robert Doty of the HSRA acknowledged receipt of the proposals, but declined to comment, saying he hadn't reviewed them and it would be premature to discuss specifics of the issue.

"The cost of taking that freeway down would have to be estimated. It would have to be a new cost," said Doty. "If they're expecting High Speed Rail to do that, that would be a substantial increase to the budget."

When asked whether he thought the San Francisco Giants would miss the freeway on game days and resist the proposal, Doty joked, "Well, I'm an A's fan, I'm going to have to take it seriously."

According to Jose Luis Moscovich, Executive Director of the SFCTA and a signatory to the letter, it would be far too premature to discuss specifics like the cost and politics of freeway removal. The letter just asks for a study in conjunction with the lengthy environmental review process.

"I think we need to let the High Speed Rail Authority understand our preferences for how you get from A to B and then let them come up with the construction techniques and let them come up with the solutions they think are going to be the most cost effective and they can analyze it," he said.

"What we need to do in communicating with them is frame a set of choices that we want them to analyze, not straight jacket them into, 'We want the freeway demolished, we want cut and cover,'" he added, referring to a form of trenching to partially or completely bury the trains underground.

As for Caltrans, the state agency that owns the freeway, the idea was novel. Caltrans District 4 spokesperson Brigetta Smith said our inquiry was the first she had heard of the idea and declined to comment.

Troy_Holden_alignment_280_small.jpgAt several locations, the support pillars for the 280 rest on Caltrain right-or-way, making the addition of two more tracks for high speed rail prohibitive. Photo: Troy Holden.

Tony Kelly of the Potrero Boosters said at the SFCTA meeting that I-280 was a bane to his neighborhood, transporting solo drivers to and from work in downtown, while causing pollution and degrading quality of life.

"The folks coming into town should be riding this beautiful new train," argued Kelly, who voiced his support for tearing down the freeway. He said the new train represents a remarkable opportunity to reorient the city for its long-term health and environmental objectives.

"If there is one thing they know how do do successfully, it's tear down freeways. In the case of the Embarcadero, god came first, we finished the job," he said.

Sophie Maxwell, District 10 Supervisor, suggested restraint on such a massive undertaking. "I think we really need to think about what that means. If we do tear that down, what does that mean for District 10? What does that mean for the people in Visitation Valley? I think it's a tremendous opportunity, but everything has to be thought out."

Moscovich strongly cautioned against comparing I-280 to the Embarcadero or Central Freeways after Loma Prieta, both of which were structurally unsound, whereas Caltrans spent nearly half a billion dollars on seismic retrofits for I-280.

"When we had an opportunity to build Octavia Boulevard, we were dealing with a freeway that had been toppled by an earthquake, essentially. Before we could even begin to design it, we had three ballot measures and an eleven-year process," said Moscovich. "That's not a promising example of how we move forward."

"We will still have a huge challenge getting anywhere close to completing [High Speed Rail] on time, so do we need to layer on top of that a local controversy about demolishing a freeway?" he asked. "I want to go ahead and embrace High Speed Rail now in the best possible terms for the city, with the most favorable design that has the least environmental impacts. If they can deliver that, we should be very happy."

"Then we can take on Caltrans separately and think about the role of freeways in our city," he added.