Downtown Extension Finally Moves Forward

A rendering of the downtown extension of Caltrain. Image: Transbay Authority
A rendering of the downtown extension of Caltrain. Image: Transbay Authority

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA) Board authorized $5.5 million in Prop K funds for the downtown extension rail tunnel (DTX) project that will one day connect Caltrain’s mainline to the Transbay Terminal. The money was allocated by unanimous consent of the board at its regular meeting at City Hall this morning.

Although this is just for preliminary engineering and a “tunneling options” study, this is a big step forward. Transit advocates have long bemoaned the delays and perceived lack of focus on this project.

Streetsblog readers will recall that the DTX, which would finally bring commuter and, eventually, high-speed rail services directly into downtown San Francisco, has seen repeated delays. Critics have bemoaned the project’s lack of a political champion, as well as the seemingly endless discussions about the alignment for the $2.6 billion project. Then, when a $647 million federal grant for Caltrain electrification was cut off by the Trump Administration earlier this year, questions arose about whether or not trains would even be able to use the DTX tunnel. Further delays by the Board led to rumors in the press that the DTX might be shelved altogether.

But today at least was a good day for the DTX.

There were a handful of speakers from the public, all strongly supportive. “The DTX remains our highest capital priority for major rail projects after the Central Subway,” said Peter Straus, one of the founders of the San Francisco Transit Riders. “We have to maintain our commitment to it despite any threats from DC.”

The Transit Riders Peter Straus.
The Transit Riders’ Peter Straus, happy about the vote

“What’s before you is a big deal…for the last five years we have futzed around about how to get the train downtown; what you have before you today is finally a way to do that,” said Jim Haas, an attorney who sits on the Transbay Community Advisory Committee.

“This board has dallied for four months,” echoed Jim Patrick, a local businessman and supporter of the project. “We don’t need any more delays.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the commission, bristled at those characterizations, and defended the delays which he said were justified given the questions about Caltrain electrification, delays in the construction of the Transbay Terminal itself, and the DTX’s price tag. “Phase 1 has been an absolute nightmare, with cost overruns, delays, mismanagement…when we go into phase 2 [DTX] we want to do it with our eyes wide open.” The Board is also appropriating $200,000 for city oversight of the tunneling and engineering.

After the approval, supporters of the DTX met outside the board room. There were some questions about whether or not there would be yet another bureaucratic step to get the engineering started, since Peskin approved it without calling a vote. But a staffer for Peskin explained to Streetsblog that the chair can approve an item without a roll-call vote if it’s clear that support is unanimous, provided none of the commissioners speaks up to object. Once it was confirmed that the DTX was, indeed, ready to move forward with preliminary engineering, the supporters took a moment to celebrate. “We are building smart stuff,” said Armie Morgan, business representative with the Operating Engineers Local #3, adding that the project will help with their apprentice program to get the next generation of construction engineers trained and working in San Francisco.

Scott Boule, an outreach manager with the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, added that the Transbay station, meanwhile, is nearing completion–buses will start running into the terminal by the end of the year. He mentioned how a short time ago the Transbay terminal was just a big hole in the ground.

“Now it’s a bus station on top of a hole in the ground,” quipped Straus, who, while happy about the morning’s victory, bemoaned the timeline–the first trains aren’t expected to arrive at the Transbay station until 2026.

Meanwhile, several other items important to the livable streets movement were also approved, including $193,475 in Prop. K funds for Bike to Work Day and the Central Richmond Neighborway Project. Additionally, $602,254 was approved for the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project. And the final report was approved for the Western Addition Community-Based Transportation Plan. The Board also heard a report about the state transportation bill.

The SF County Transportation Authority Board at this mornings meeting.
The SF County Transportation Authority Board this morning.
  • Sorry, I just don’t buy these endless delays and “alignment studies.” This is just another waste of $5.5M. If the DTX had been a priority from the get go, then (1) the alignment/engineering studies would have been chosen and completed and (2) it would have been constructed during Phase 1. Neither has happened and soon the city will be stuck with a grossly expensive bus station on top of the shell of a train station for decades to come.

  • And now the price tag is $2.6B. $2.6B could be better spent on 3 miles of subway under Geary to move thousands more people faster and more efficiently.

  • saimin

    Aren’t they already building the Central Subway to the existing Caltrain station? How about using the $2.6 billion to give Caltrain riders free transfers to Muni?

  • jonobate

    There are a lot of politics going on here. The city of SF is increasingly exerting control over the DTX project, ostensibly as an attempt to prevent the sort of cost overruns that were seen during phase 1, but also to force the TJPA to accept the outcome of the Planning Department’s alignment study, which TJPA were resisting as it means re-doing the environmental work. Planning reckon they can come up with an alignment that’s cheaper and better that the original plan; we’ll see if that’s actually the case.

  • If the stalling is in hopes of bringing HSR to downtown SF, then perhaps they should just call it quits since HSR will either die a quick death in the Central Valley or a slow death with delays, overruns, lawsuits, etc. $2.6B is a lot of money for a little over 1 mile of tracks.

  • You can already transfer to the N or K/T at 4th St. The Central Subway really won’t affect Caltrain other than being a second transfer point for perhaps a quicker ride to Market St. for another transfer to Muni and BART. Also, it’s not like the new surface station is going to be right outside Caltrain…it will still be over a block away between Brannan and Bryant versus the one block to the current 4th/King station.
    As I said…that $2.6B could be much better spent on much more useful projects. The city needs to give up on making the TTC anything more than what it’s supposed to be…a bus station. It’s promise of building a “Grand Central Station of the West” was a joke and embarrassment from the beginning and anyone with half a brain who bought that pitch is a fool.

  • saimin

    My point is that most Caltrain riders really hate paying the extra $5 roundtrip fare to to take Muni on that last mile to/from work. Given the choice of extending Caltrain at huge expense many years from now or free transfers to Muni now for a fraction of the price, I bet 95% of Caltrain riders would chose free Muni transfers. The Central Subway is supposed to be complete relatively soon and will help people get to and from the north of Market area where Muni is too overcrowded and unreliable right now.

  • p_chazz

    Considering all the litigation over the Leaning Tower of Millennium, I wouldn’t be surprised if the tunnel isn’t blocked because the vibration of the trains passing through might cause the building to lean still further. Perhaps they can build a navigation center in the basement of the Transbay Terminal. They might as well, because once it opens, the Transbay Terminal will become a de facto homeless shelter, like the Main Library.

  • jonobate

    The Millenium Tower is 1300ft from the closest point of the DTX route. Doubtful that will have anything to do with anything.

  • jonobate

    No, the stalling is more due to SF Planning’s desire to put a Caltrain station near the new Warriors Arena, and to not have a grade crossing at 16th St that would interfere with the 22-Fillmore re-route.

    HSR have already given up on waiting for the DTX, and are planning to retrofit 4th & King for HSR service until the DTX gets built.

  • p_chazz

    What I meant was that trains wouldn’t be allowed to use the Transbay Terminal because of the Millennium’s structural issues. That would render the DTX useless.

  • jonobate

    Very unlikely. They’ve already built the train cavern; putting it to use is not going to make the Millenium Tower situation any worse than it already is.

  • Patrick Jackson

    HSR will succeed.

  • Patrick Jackson

    I recommend looking at this article for better DTX routes: https://urbanlifesigns.blogspot.com/2013/03/uncrooking-san-franciscos-crookedest.html

  • YohanSF

    Of note – the bulk of the money (4.5M) is only for items common to all of the alignments being considered in the RAB.

    “This scope only includes elements that are common to all alignments being evaluated in the Planning Department’s Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Boulevard Study (RAB).”

    http://www.sfcta.org/sites/default/files/content/Executive/Meetings/board/2017/04-Apr-11/Revised/R17-XX%20DTX%20Allocations%20and%20Appropration.pdf

  • If Caltrain riders can’t use a transfer on Muni then this should be a simple thing to fix that costs less than $2.6B.
    The CS will only help people go to/from Chinatown and not much else north of Chinatown. If you ride the 30-Stockton from the Marina to Caltrain, for example, it would really just be easier to stay on the bus then get off at the Chinatown station, descend 100 to the platform, and wait for a train. Once the bus passes through Union Square it’s a straight shot to Caltrain.
    Face it, transit agencies on their own can barely run an effective system. Once you start trying to connect them in logical places, like a major commercial downtown area, it’s proven to be a waste. In the end, riders pay more for services that remain inadequate.

  • The question is will it succeed in getting built or succeed from an operational and financial standpoint?

  • David S

    Thank you for your very informative comments, jonobate.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Both.

  • Doubtful, but you clearly have more faith and time to invest in seeing it happen than most of us.

  • Patrick Jackson

    The route from Hanford to San Jose is under construction and/or funded, and it’ll only take $3 billion more to make it SF-Bakersfield. At that point, political pressure will complete the system from Bakersfield to LA. Besides, Dems have a supermajority that can presumably fund HSR.

  • Good to hear. Let’s see if it actually happens. $3B…lol. But, if you say so…

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