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.”