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.

  • ZA

    Democracy! It’s made of WIN!

  • George Wicke

    It’s an interesting idea, but Mr. Kelly needs to understand that high-speed rail will NOT be a commuter service like Caltrain. And, with the continuing service cuts to Peninsula rail service, including the threats of eliminating weekend and midday trains, the freeway may be the only viable option for those of us who rely on or prefer to take the train. Ending I-280 at Cesar Chavez would cause massive congestion on already busy Bayshore Boulevard, Potrero Avenue and Third Street and would make 101 North delays truly unbearable. Caltrans and the HSR Project need to come up with a viable solution to this potential problem that does not interfere with either rail service or traffic into and out of the city.

  • What a mess. What an unnecessary mess.

    It’s really very very simple to do it right.

    Caltrain+HSR (sharing the same two tracks) exit the existing tunnel then dive into a trench to pass under 16th Street (which might need to be raised 1 or 2 feet at most), then continues in a trench below I-280 to pass under Common Street and under the large box sewer that empties from Division Street into Mission Creek.

    It all works just fine: see http://www.pobox.com/users/mly/TTT-2008/DTX-200805-7th.pdf

    No tracks on the surface, period. No grade crossings, period. No 25,000 volt electric trains crossing the planned 600 volt 22 extension trolley bus on 16th Street. No crossing gates down for 20 minutes out of the hour at peaks.

    Note that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED for a surface station at 4th&King provided that the Transbay Terminal is not utterly screwed up (which of course is the present “plan” from the World’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals at TJPA/Caltrain/CHSRA.)

    By placing a competently-designed shared HSR/Caltrain station in a trench at the edge of Townsend Street, most of two entire city blocks (King/Townsend/Fourth/Sixth) can be freed of parked, out-of-service trains and given over to urban development. And Fifth Street can be continued over the station to rejoin King.

    With competent, post 19th-century operating practices and with competent, non-Caltrain shared facilities (tracks, stations, and platforms) and with competent, non-TJPA/Caltrain Transbay Terminal track design is it perfectly feasible to have a SINGLE terminal station in San Francisco, downtown, WHERE THE VOTERS WERE PROMISED CALTRAIN WOULD RUN, instead of the quite literally insane Caltrain scheme to make most Caltrain services — the trains carrying more riders than HSR ever will! — stop short, dumping passengers at Fourth Street where only few of them wish to go.

    The whole situation we’re in is just hideously stupid, and entirely due to rank professional incompetence at he TJPA, Caltrain and the CHSRA. It isn’t rocket science. Rail planners outside the US (or more particularly, outside the transit-backward English-speaking world) do this stuff in their sleep.

    What a catastrophe for San Francisco we’re seeing instead. And how typical.

  • patrick

    @richard, I’m not knowledgeable enough to entirely understand most of the links you provided, but your written description sounds much better than the current plan.

    100% agree that forcing the majority of Caltrain riders to stop at 4th and king completely contrary to the intent of the transbay terminal, and spending $4 billion plus to do so is just insane.

  • yuppy

    tearing down freeways brings more yuppiness to the area – it’ll be out of control

  • marcos



  • marcos

    Weren’t most of the retrofits of I-280 to the south of where the freeway crosses over the CalTrain line?


  • yuppy

    they might not even build the bullet trains…turns out the estimated ridership was grossly overestimated.

  • marcos


    Even as heat-trapping emissions from industry are declining in much of the developed world, those from transport continue to rise relentlessly. Flying in particular is a growth industry – in terms of both business and emissions.

    The new British coalition government has taken a lonely stand to reverse that trend, by canceling plans to build new runways at London-area airports. That’s because research suggests that more terminals and more runways will mean more flying, with attendant emissions.

  • I have an old map of the 1905 Daniel Burnham Plan for San Francisco. I love to imagine my modern day walk to BART from Joost near City College in that future that never was. The Burnham Plan has Joost and Sunnyside Ave. (now called Monterey Blvd) meeting Glen Park at the entrance of Islais Creek Park which meanders along where the 280 now roars.

    Matter of fact, there has been talk of daylighting Islais Creek… One can dream, can’t one?


  • patrick

    @yuppy, the ITS report said they thought the ridership model was flawed, inaccurate, not that there was an overestimate, they also explicitly stated that it could be an overestimate OR an underestimate.

  • go SF!

    That’s what we call as TRANSIT FIRST!!

  • gibraltar

    Huh, biased much?

    “Portions of I-280 north of Cesar Chavez serve to divide city neighborhoods”

    What about 280 SOUTH of Cesar Chavez? You know that large part of the city where many residents live. It suffers just as much if not more from this fucking freeway cutting through it.


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