City Hall Pushes Caltrain to Move the 4th/King Railyard

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The various public agencies shaping the plan to bring high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco disagree on what should be done with the Caltrain railyard at the 4th and King Street station. Officials from San Francisco’s Planning Department and Mayor’s Office say it’s time for the railyard — along with the northern spur of the 280 freeway – to be opened up for development, reconnecting the South of Market District and Mission Bay while making it more feasible to build a more direct HSR alignment to connect to the Transbay Transit Center.

Caltrain, however, is not on board. The agency has its sights set on electrifying the rail line by 2019, including the 4th and King Station, and it is wary of possibly delaying the project by setting out to relocate the yard. “There is an urgency for Caltrain to get electrification in place with expediency,” Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Ackemann told the SF Chronicle in January. “With electrification we significantly reduce our operating costs.”

There’s no dispute that Caltrain needs to reap the benefits of electrification, particularly since it will be necessary to share tracks with CAHSR, which is providing the funds to make it happen. But SF officials warn that moving ahead with $250 million in spending to electrify the railyard when a re-think of the site is in order will be a huge waste. With the land value of the 19-acre SoMa site estimated to be upwards of $225 million, opening it up for development could pay for a significant chunk of high-speed rail infrastructure in San Francisco.

“The opportunity is to both knit the neighborhoods back together by redeveloping the yards, while at the same time producing value that could we could use to fund transportation improvements,” said Gillian Gillett, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director.

“We totally support electrification, and we want to make sure it happens as quickly as possible, but we don’t want to allow it to happen in such a way that it precludes future benefits for the city,” Planning Director John Rahaim told the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee earlier this week.

The idea of developing the Caltrain yard, which sits between 4th and 7th Streets, has been well-studied. The Planning Department published a study in December exploring some of the possibilities, including building an underground train station. In 2007, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association published its own study of a similar scope called A New Transit First Neighborhood. In a blog post last month, SPUR’s Tomiquia Moss and Sarah Karlinsky noted that “putting the right type of development here could knit together the surrounding neighborhoods [and] capitalize on the extensive transit access.”

“The railyards form an enormous barrier between Mission Bay and SoMa,” they wrote. “Pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles can only cross the site at one intersection, and a tangle of 280 freeway ramps clutters the southwest edge of the site.”

Although Caltrain has completed a state-mandated environmental impact report on electrification, the document didn’t consider removing the 4th and King railyard, and it’s now outdated (the draft was released in 2004, and the final report released in 2009). Caltrain is setting out to revise it, and yesterday held the last in a series of public outreach meetings at San Francisco City Hall to field input on the scope of the 18-month revision of the EIR. According to city staffers, Caltrain has agreed to include a city-conducted analysis of alternative uses for the railyard, and will perform an eight-month feasibility study.

“The information they’re using for their EIR… is more than ten years old. The neighborhoods have changed,” said Corrine Woods, chair of the Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee, which supports moving the Caltrain yard.

Still, Caltrain says that studying a yard replacement now could delay its 2019 target for electrification, putting at risk its $700 million grant from the CAHSR Authority. “It was very important to high-speed rail when they gave us the money that this truly be an early investment in the region, so we’re really committed to meeting that deadline,” Ackemann said on an edition of KQED Forum in late January.

The CAHSRA, however, doesn’t seem too worried about Caltrain’s tracks being ready in time to run high-speed trains. With CAHSRA planning to begin service on the Peninsula in 2029, spokesperson Rob Wilcox said Caltrain’s 2019 target is far ahead of the authority’s schedule.

Ackemann also said on KQED that Caltrain is “a long ways from even identifying other potential locations,” and that storing trains elsewhere along the rail corridor could increase its operating costs “because of additional labor to move trains, [and] fuel costs in the interim leading up to electrification.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener said he’s been “frustrated” at Caltrain’s reluctance, and urged city agencies “to keep pushing very, very hard to make sure that Caltrain takes this into account.”

“It’s a huge potential missed opportunity if we do anything that prevents us from ending the severe under-utilization of this land,” he said.

Caltrain will continue to accept public comments on the scope of its EIR until March 18 at electrification@caltrain.com.