“Not a Freeway” — Re-Branding the Excesses of the $1.4B Presidio Parkway

A temporary bypass road, with a movable median barrier, runs by the Main Post Tunnels under construction for the Presidio Parkway early this year. Photo: Presidio Parkway

When visitors land on the front page of the Presidio Parkway’s website, they see an animated pelican emerging from beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, gliding across green hills and blue skies. When the bird lands, you can “Meet Parker” with a click and learn all about the Presidio Parkway Pelican.

The PR team for this freeway project wants you to know that Parker the fictional pelican is “very excited about the improvements the new Presidio Parkway will bring to his favorite national park!”

This “former military pilot” even has his own color-within-the-lines page [PDF] that parents can print out for their kids to fill in. Perhaps that helps distract the whole family from the $1.4 billion taxpayers will be forking over for the next 30 years to build a one-mile freeway connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco’s Marina District.

The Presidio Parkway probably needs a re-branding campaign like this to make it palatable to the public. With the images of birds, clouds, and rolling hills, you can’t really tell that this project is about building a gargantuan concrete structure. In fact, the website insists that it’s “a parkway, not a freeway” with a logo depicting a quaint, narrow road, somehow free of motor vehicles, snaking through the grass to everybody’s favorite bridge.

Screenshot of the banner on PresidioParkway.com

There’s no doubt the depression-era Doyle Drive needed to be replaced, and there’s good reason the design of its successor has been deliberated since the 80s. The elevated highway was crumbling and would likely have succumbed to the next big earthquake. Designed to steer the motoring public around the former Presidio military base, it cut off the national park from the Bay.

The new road will be less of a monstrosity, and the temporary structure built in the first phase has already provided a “seismically safe” road for drivers. Car traffic is currently routed through the first of four planned tunnels via a temporary bypass road. In 2015, both pairs of tunnels are expected to open, and on top of them will be 13 acres of parkland that people and wildlife can traverse freely to Crissy Field.

A rendering of the final vision for the Presidio Parkway. Image: Presidio Parkway

This concept of partially “hiding” the freeway blew away all of Caltrans’ original proposals when it was presented by a landscape architect in 1988. But financing and constructing the “parkway” has been problematic — hardly the cost-saving, low-impact endeavor it was meant to be. And these days, the concept itself is feeling stale — it’s no wonder so much marketing effort has gone into selling people on the not-a-freeway. “Hiding,” it seems, is a prevailing theme for the project.

$1.4 billion can buy San Francisco a lot of transportation infrastructure. It can replace Muni’s entire light-rail fleet of 155 cars, expand it by 105, and still leave $200 million leftover. It can build a seamless network of protected bike lanes, transforming San Francisco into a bike-friendly city on par with Copenhagen or Amsterdam — more than twice over. $1.4 billion is nearly four times the $363 million needed to implement pedestrian safety measures that could cut injuries on SF’s streets in half.

But that’s the Presidio Parkway’s price tag, far more than the cost estimates for the most expensive early Caltrans proposals — $600 million. When SF voters approved Prop K, the local half-cent transportation sales tax in 2003, the budget was $400 million.

The ballooning price tag was largely due to a private-public partnership with a European group of companies headed by the German firm Hochtief and the French firm Meridiam Infrastructure. The deal to have the firms shoulder the freeway cost upfront, then pay them back over 30 years, was reached at a time when the state was particularly cash-strapped. The SF County Transportation Authority also claims the partnership actually lowers costs by reducing overruns.

As the Bay Citizen reported in 2012the Professional Engineers in California Government, a labor union, sued the state, saying the arrangement “would cost twice the traditional method of building highways.”

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed in a 2010 report, saying the public-private partnership was “not likely to be a good fiscal deal for the state. They said the second phase would cost the state $594 million.

The lawsuit was dismissed. But much of the cost of the two-phase freeway project could also have been avoided with a much smaller and more efficient design, with two tunnels instead of four. Instead of one “Main Post” tunnel and one “Battery Tunnel” as originally envisioned, there will be two sets of two tunnels for each direction of traffic. That requires a costly second phase and temporary bypass road so that three of the tunnels can be built in the meantime.

Construction seen early this year on the Battery Tunnels. All car traffic is currently routed through one of them. Photo: Presidio Parkway

“It would’ve saved years of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Jim Chappell, who was the executive director of SPUR at the time the organization pushed for a “graceful” replacement of Doyle Drive in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Presidio Parkway will have six traffic lanes but will be more than double the width of the original Doyle Drive due to the pairs of tunnels, a wide center median, shoulder lanes, and a seventh “auxiliary” lane at junctions.

“It’s the way American engineering bureaucracies run,” said Chappell. “The mentality is they’re always looking for the biggest engineering solution, they’re never looking for the soft solution, the ecological solution.”

On the temporary bypass road today, traffic seems to be flowing fairly smoothly, with traffic in both directions fitting through one tunnel. But Caltrans and many planners overseeing the project don’t like it.

“It’s serving admirably to move the traffic that we have, but doing that requires this movable median barrier that goes back and forth, and there are no shoulders available,” said Lee Saage, the SFCTA’s deputy director for capital projects.

Saage said the freeway would be overwhelmed if Caltrans didn’t close the ramp that used to connect northbound highway 1 to southeast 101, allowing drivers coming from Park Presidio in the Richmond to transfer directly to the Marina. That ramp will be re-opened when the project is completed.

“Part of the reason we’re coping with it is because we’ve closed off some of the access,” said Saage. “Once you have the full facility, you’ll have the shoulders on both sides of the roadway that’ll provide refuge in the event of a traffic accident or injury, and allow us to reconnect all those local movements that were closed.”

A movable median barrier, which is shifted by crews on a vehicle between rush hours to change the direction of the center-most traffic lane, is currently being built on the Golden Gate Bridge at a cost of $30 million. And the Presidio Parkway “didn’t need shoulders for a one-mile-long road,” said Chappell. “You could’ve had emergency turnouts here and there.”

Still, Chappell said the Doyle Drive replacement was poised to be far worse with Caltrans’ original proposals for an eight-lane freeway, until landscape architect Michael Painter presented the winning concept. Chappell largely credits former SFCTA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich for convincing Caltrans to concede its “lead agency” status on the project to the SFCTA.

In an article recounting the history of Doyle Drive planning, SPUR notes that “traffic engineers shot down many of SPUR’s and Painter’s novel ideas as dangerous because they weren’t what drivers expected to experience.”

“There are over 500 exceptions from the standards in the way that it was finally designed,” Chappell told Streetsblog. “We didn’t get 100 percent of everything we wanted, but we got a lot.”

Yet, as Chappell wrote in another SPUR article, “The word ‘parkway’ has been corrupted to mean just about anything, from a straight urban street with a planted median, to any wide road so designated by a real estate salesperson.”

And when calling it a “parkway” isn’t enough, there’s always Parker the Pelican.

  • Nicasio Nakamine

    I don’t think there’s any going back now, right? Like our glorious Central Subway, we are now committed. Can we look to the next big project like these and steer them in more sensible directions?

  • Sprague

    Highway projects seem to be too-rarely questioned or criticized, and Doyle Drive is no exception. Thank you for shedding light on this new, improved, and much wider freeway project. Of course, the new Doyle Drive will enhance recreation in the Presidio (which was an army and not a navy base) and it’s most important to have seismically sound infrastructure. But since it seems to be doing allright with four lanes today, it sure seems like an opportunity was lost to build a smaller and less expensive freeway (as you point out). The new Doyle Drive will undermine San Francisco’s fairy tale of being a transit first city.

  • Samuel

    Thank you Streetsblog for documenting the collusal waste of money of these freeway shoulders. Apparently we must build freeways with shoulders on the left AND right sides, to ensure that when one car breaks down or crashes, it does not delay any other car. Imagine if we designed our transit systems the same way!

  • Sprague

    correction: doing allright with *five* lanes today

  • voltairesmistress

    You make some valid points, but you are wrong to characterize the current temporary lanes as handling traffic just fine. I drive to Marin once or twice a week, mostly to check in on elderly parents. The most difficult and unpredictable part of the route now is the approach to the GG Bridge due to traffic back ups, insufficient lanes, etc. And coming back even later in the evening can be challenging due to the narrowness of the southbound lanes, the weird curves, and a curb for a median — all feel pretty hazardous.

    I am looking forward to the parkway, an appropriate term for this dramatic, greenery heavy portal to the City. Sure, every infrastructure project could be delivered for less, its funds used to deliver somebody else’s priority project, and its aesthetics dumbed down, but posterity will probably reward us for creating a parkway that honors the aesthetics and engineering of both City and Bridge.

    We need to be spending millions more on transit and bike routes and safety in San Francisco, yes. But it is politically dumb to bemoan already committed funding for a different kind of project, one that is part road, part grand entry, part park expansion and wildlife route enabler, part art, and part place-making landscape architecture. We can have this gem and fund the other worthy projects. Let’s not, as transportation advocates, form a circular firing squad.

  • Andy Chow

    Having been a transit advocate for more than 15 years, besides for pushing what you want, the other battle is to fight “marquee” projects that ought to be right-sized. Pretty much projects like this, the Bay Bridge east span, Caldecott 4th bore, BART extensions, Central Subway, high speed rail all fit the profile.

    These projects are marquee because they’re popular among politicians and voters in general. They know the travel benefits of wider roads. They know BART as the gold standard for transit in the Bay Area (even though people who have lived elsewhere know better). We don’t like them because they’re too expensive, don’t necessarily align with our priorities (including BART which depend on parking in the suburbs), excessive, isn’t as useful as it appears, and that we have better products that would do the same job for less money (like BRT, commuter rail, etc).

    When we have to take that fight, it is always an uphill battle. The politicians are going to ignore us. Labor unions, business groups, developers aren’t going to be on our side. Our message are technical and people who are generally liberal and act environmental don’t always get our message (if someone were to ask if we’re for transit then why are we against BART, we have to spend time explaining to them, which doesn’t work during a political campaign.) Also in our region, we are wealthy and generous enough to approve more taxes and overlook the cost difference. We don’t have nearly enough voters who care about cost (fiscal conservatives) to pressure the politicians.

    Sometimes to fight those projects, our other option is to join the NIMBY and tea party crowd. They are like us who are against the project but for very different reasons. They bring energy and are very emotional, but don’t always share our values or even support our own alternatives. This path is risky and may often result in unintended consequences.

    Fighting these projects are lonely, exhausting, and sadly mostly unsuccessful. I think most advocates who have been around at least got involved with some of those negative battles. We don’t always fight every one of those battles but we know what they are and know why some of us are fighting it.

    I would like to mention the late Norman Rolfe, who passed away 4 years ago and was a member of San Francisco Tomorrow. He helped save the cable cars in the 1950s and was a part of the freeway revolt. He supported more Muni and extending Caltrain. His last battle was to fight against this project and he called it “a freeway in disguise.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Norman-Rolfe-advocate-for-public-transit-3201542.php

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Summary: “I use this road and I like driving on it, so it’s worth whatever it is that you paid for it for me.”

    “Politically dumb”, “grand entry”, :park expansion” “place-making” “wildlife enabler” “honors aethetics” = “I use this road and I like driving on it, so it’s worth whatever it is that you paid for it for me.”
    You only forgot “TOD” and “vibrant communities”. Must try harder.

    BTW circular firing squads sound like a most excellent idea. We’d certainly get better and more final outcomes than those we’re achieving.

  • murphstahoe

    It doesn’t matter how many lanes approach the bridge. If we put 1000 lanes approaching the bridge, the bridge still has only 3 lanes, with a tricky/goofy merge, and the fun happy times of random cars missing the exit to the visitor center and *reversing* back to the offramp.

    Example: When the bridge is way backed up, it backs up Doyle Drive, and drivers start to use Lincoln as well. Surprisingly this only works for a few minutes until the traffic backs up onto Lincoln because the bottleneck is upstream.

    If this project is being overbuilt, it is being overbuilt with funding that could have been used to help solve the problem. The most difficult and unpredictable part of the route is the approach to the bridge because of backups, so we commit hundreds of millions to build more lanes. The overcrowded ferries are an invisible and thus unimportant problem.

  • RoyTT

    Six lanes is actually more logical given that the bridge has six lanes. More than six might be superfluous but less six would inevitably cause congestion due to involuntary merges.

    This is an expensive project, no doubt. But it taken 26 years to build and I’d posit that much of that expense was incurred because of the delays and the various obstacles that any project like this has to go through.

    But the end result will be much better than what we had before. And other than Doyle Drive, I cannot think of any major and expensive car-centric investment in the city itself recently (although several outside it, of course).

    In fact, we have torn down several lengths of freeway in the city since this project was first mooted in 1988, and I suspect the southern-most sections of 101 and 280 might come down as well in future years. But the bridge connectors seem like a reasonable exception, and are not fully controlled by the city anyway.

  • Howard Lovecraft

    Where’s the parking?

  • murphstahoe

    I guess you missed all that work on the various on and off ramps to the Bay Bridge the last 10 years. Presumably they are in the same category as Doyle Drive, which is basically one big on/off ramp to a bridge.

  • Sprague

    The old Doyle Drive structure had six lanes, if my memory serves me correctly, but usually one of these lanes was coned off as a median buffer. With Highway 1 leading to and from the bridge, five lanes on Doyle Drive seems sufficient. The new Doyle Drive will promote automobile access to San Francisco (from the north) more than ever before. It will have more lanes in operation at all times and, although there’s ample space, it will lack a bus/HOV lane or rail right-of-way. At times of congestion (due to collisions, holiday traffic, etc.) Golden Gate Transit and Muni 28 and 76 X riders will be penalized at least as much as motorists. This is the opposite of transit first.

  • I disagree with both the substance and the uncivil tone of your reply.

    Apart from making cars vaporize, which cannot be done, there has to be infrastructure for them.

    And if that infrastructure can be attractive and functional in many different ways, then all the better. Should we give up our fight for more bike/ped infra? Absolutely not. Could this have been done in a more economical way as Jim Chappell pointed out, and the savings spent on bike/ped? Absolutely yes.

    We keep fighting, we keep learning. Unless you’ve decided that demagoguery is a better tactic.

  • Michael Smith

    You are forgetting about Park Presidio. So now we will have 10 lanes funneling into 6 on the bridge. Plus breakdown lanes only where they are most expensive (through the tunnels and viaduct).

  • Parker Pelican

    Hookay,

    I need to post this anonymously of course, but the project is being held up and the cost increases are largely due to the Presidio Trust scamming the project to get as much free construction work done as possible to make as much money as possible from the resulting tourist attraction – see the ‘presidio parklands’ project that is hijacking a good portion of the project – The Presidio Trust is adding to the delays and millions (conservatively millions) to the cost, not the contractor, not Caltrans.

  • Can you email me about this on background? abialick@streetsblog.org

  • voltairesmistress

    I believe the proper approach to this lack of swift transit would be to fight for continuous, dedicated transit only lanes on the new Presidio Parkway, 101, and possibly the Bridge itself and Hwy 1. People going north and south will take the bus if it has them passing by commuters stuck in traffic. Perhaps some of them already do this via the ferry, but plenty more would take a bus if it were faster than driving their own car.

  • Sprague

    Well said. Anytime there is a “police activity” or technical problem, it seems that all BART trains in the vicinity of the problem are brought to a standstill and it’s no-go until it’s resolved.

  • murphstahoe

    I take the current buses. Nothing you describe is the issue. The problem is Lombard Ave, Van Ness, North Point, Embarcadero, and Battery.

    I get off of Caltrain at 4th and King a few minutes after the GGT bus leaves the terminal at 3rd and Folsom. I ride my bike to the bridge. I routinely beat the bus by 10-15 minutes.

    The carpool lanes on 101 in Marin are usually clear enough to travel near the speed limit.

  • p_chazz

    Both Doyle Drive and the Bay Bridge approaches were rebuilt because they were seiismically unsound structures that carry hundreds of thousands of people every day, a not insignificant fact that seems to have been conveniently overlooked.

  • vcs

    If Doyle Drive undermines the fairy tale of “transit first”, wait until you see the new Transbay Bus Terminal. Nearly all of the same criticisms can be leveled — Taj Mahal aesthetics with little to no improvements in basic mobility.

    When you get down to it, it has nothing to do with highways or bus terminals, and everything to do with our local political machine preferring glamours monuments to pork instead of the incremental basic improvements we badly need.

  • vcs

    It’s the same issue as the fights over bike lane standards — civil engineers only know how to do it “by the book”.

    “The book” has no sense of context or proportionality, and that’s why we paved over portion of a national park so semi trucks can park safely on the side of the road.

  • p_chazz

    The road was there before the national park.

  • Reynolds Cameron

    SFCTA’s priorities should be:
    1.) Expand Central Subway to Fisherman’s Warf.
    2.) Underground all Muni rails that run on surface streets.)
    3.) Tear down 101/Central Freeway and underground it along Potrero Ave.
    4.) Continue Doyle Drive tunneling under Lombard and Van Ness to the 101/280 interchange at Cesar Chavez.
    5.) Underground 19th Ave.
    6.) Underground Geary.
    7.) Underground Cesar Chavez.
    8.) Underground 280.

  • murphstahoe

    Re-reading this – what crap. We have invested hundreds of billions of today’s dollars on huge car infrastructure projects over the decades – at the expense of other modes. Now it slows to a trickle and a few bulb outs and bike lanes means “unbalanced!”

    In 1990, it would have been pretty accurate to say there has NEVER been a major bike or pedestrian project, and accurate to say that a lot of the car centric ones really made it crappy to walk around here (19th, Brotherhood, etc….)

    If you were King – what car centric project does SF Need? There isn’t really any unfunded but needed project on the docket being discussed.

  • Nicasio Nakamine

    These all sound great, but also very costly. Tunneling is just about the most expensive type of project there is. If we had the budget to accomplish this list, I think we would have to look very hard at if more could be accomplished with a greater number of less expensive projects.

  • RoyTT

    My comments about not undertaking expensive road schemes in the last 25-30 years was limited to the city. Obviously there have been recent projects like the Willie Brown Bridge, Devil’s Slide Tunnel and the new bore on the Caledecott Tunnel.

    But in the city itself, what projects costing billions have been done other than seismic retrofits of bridge approaches, which we really have no choice about? The last one was 280 and that must have been at least thirty years ago. Octavia Boulevard, perhaps, but part of that was tearing down a section of 101.

    I wasn’t saying that there are desirable projects out there, only that this one examples is the exception rather than the rule.

  • murphstahoe

    “this one examples is the exception rather than the rule”

    That does not make it exempt from criticism nor mean “hey, man, cut the drivers a break, they haven’t had a shiny new road in forever”.

  • Bruce

    This IS part of a major transit system – the vast majority of Golden Gate Transit buses, plus Muni’s 28/28L (and 76X on weekends) use this route. The shoulders help reduce delays to their tens of thousands of passengers, too.

    Not to mention that backups on Doyle Drive/Presidio Parkway back to Richardson/Lombard Streets lead to increased congestion in that area, along with all the associated negative health benefits to those living and walking nearby (and delays to the 22 and 43 lines).

    So shoulders benefit more than just solo drivers.

  • voltairesmistress

    Good to know. Looks like those five city streets need dedicated transit lanes, at least during commute hours.

  • murphstahoe

    If there is a bottleneck at the top (bridge) all the wider lanes do is reduce the delay of you getting onto Doyle Drive itself, but your net travel time is not reduced, because that’s not the bottleneck.

  • Reynolds Cameron

    Precisely why undergrounding from Doyle Drive to Bayshore and Junipero Sera is such a wise investment. If GGBTD can waste $100 million (construction+”studies”) to prevent a handful of suicidists from jumping of the bridge – at a cost of about $7 million per death into perpetuity, factoring in financing – it surely makes sense to spend $30-$300 billion to save hundred of innocent lives while vastly improving our transit system and increasing the amount of land available to development by about 10-20%.

  • p_chazz

    Bur if the bottleneck is caused by a breakdown on the parkway, then the shoulders will reduce net travel time since there will be a place for disabled vehicles to pull off the road.

  • murphstahoe

    Maybe if those scofflaw motorists took care of their cars…

  • murph, I usually agree with you, but in this instance the bottom line really is they made an awfully nice replacement that allows for pedestrian, bicycle, and wildlife traffic where there was essentially none before. They increased open space. They increase greenery. They increased seismic safety.

    Did we still end up with a great big expensive road? We sure did. The work going forward is to change that default.

  • murphstahoe

    Bicycle traffic? I can ride up Doyle Drive? 🙂

  • Over and under in several places where it was not possible before, you clever bastard!

  • Reynolds Cameron

    We are spending $100 million (or $5 million per year into perpetuity) on the suicide net, to prevent 20 deaths per year. That is $250,000 per life of people that don’t even want to live. Last year, 25 pedestrians and cyclists were killed by motorists. Not to mention the hundreds that were sent to the emergency room with broken bones, road rash, etc. These innocent victims did not choose to die or be maimed. We should be spending at least 1000 times as much to save innocent people from dying than restricting the freedom of people who want to die from carrying out their will. If it only costs $100 billion to build these tunnels, it will be a good bargain.

  • So true – all arterial streets, like Geary, Masonic, Market, Mission, need side car storage. Why is this one any different?!

  • Raze 280. It’s an under utilized freeway that’s sitting on some of the most valuable real-estate in the US. Expand Caltrain & HSR, and make the DTX tunnel able to handle all caltrain trains, as opposed to 1/4 of the caltrain trains that it’s currently designed to handle by building a turnaround loop past at the new transbay terminal.

  • SF Guest

    Hmm. Odd you would say 280 is under utilized when it’s a major artery for Giants games. It’s always packed during game days.

  • Sanfordia113

    Should we rename it Giants’ Driveway?

  • SF Guest

    It’s premature to rename it now. In three years it may be better to name it the Giants/Warriors driveway.

  • murphstahoe

    I would bet you many thousands of dollars that more giants fans take Caltrain than take 280. And those trains are more crowded than 280.

  • SF Guest

    You are probably right more fans take Caltrain, but that doesn’t mean 280 is under-utilized per @ Ziggy Tomcich.

  • murphstahoe

    There are 82 Giants games per year, 90 if they win the World’s Series. Let’s assume that 2000 fans per game take the 280 to the Giants, with an average occupancy of 2 per vehicle. Are you saying we should keep the 280 stub because of 180,000 vehicle trips per year for baseball games, turning down the ability to generate several billions in tax revenue? Even a traffic engineer would disagree with you.

  • douglasawillinger

    Use them for an extension into SF as a full freeway tunnel to connect with he existing freeway network.

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