A Straighter Extension of Caltrain/HSR Into Downtown SF: Is It Worth It?

A simulation of a curve in the planned downtown extension alignment, as rendered in ##http://transbaycenter.org/project/downtown-rail-extension##a video from the TJPA##.

By 2029, San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center — which has been called the “Grand Central of the West” — will allow people to hop on an electrified Caltrain to San Jose and high-speed rail down to Southern California from the same platform. That’s the vision, at least, of planners working on the extension of Caltrain from the current terminus at 4th and King Streets to the massive transit hub under construction in SF’s downtown core.

But some advocates and planners say the planned rail alignment for the downtown extension of Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail, which will share tracks along the Peninsula, needs to be revisited because it includes too many sharp turns, which they say could slow the trains down and create a bottleneck. Planners at the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, however, say any increase in speeds would be minimal, and that embarking on a planning process for a different alignment could delay construction by at least a decade. Currently, the extension is expected to be built some time before high-speed rail is completed in 2029.

“Are we sure a new alignment will be better? Definitely not, we just think it’s worth asking the question again at this stage,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, who was appointed to the TJPA Board by Mayor Ed Lee. “From my perspective, the DTX (downtown extension) is now the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco, and it should be the focus of a lot of attention until it is underway. We think that at this stage it’s a good idea to take some time to explore alternative alignments and ways of phasing the project.”

Brian Stokle, who writes the blog Urban Life Signs, wrote a post in March about “uncrooking San Francisco’s crookedest tunnel” in which he laid out the conceptual differences between a few different alignment options. Some alignments could alleviate engineering obstacles, while causing other complications to arise. One of them would allow riders to transfer to the Central Subway station under construction at Moscone Center. Altogether, there’s no clear winner.

“Whatever tunnel and stations get built, we should be considering what we’re asking for and what’s most important,” Stokle wrote. “Simply stating this is a tunnel to get to the Transbay Center is missing the point. We’re creating a valuable piece of infrastructure that should work for at least a century into the future and work for not just Caltrain, HSR, and downtown, but benefit the entire region, including other transit operators, residents and commuters.”

But changing the alignment could set the DTX back by decades, according to Scott Boule, the TJPA’s community outreach manager.

Various proposed alignments for the downtown extension for Caltrian and high-speed rail. Image via ##http://urbanlifesigns.blogspot.com/2013/03/uncrooking-san-franciscos-crookedest.html##Urban Life Signs##
Alignment alternatives considered by the SF County Transportation Authority. Image via ##http://urbanlifesigns.blogspot.com/2013/03/uncrooking-san-franciscos-crookedest.html##Urban Life Signs##

The DTX is relying on a major grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program that’s expected to come through in 2022. It takes about a decade to get a New Starts grant, from the application to the time the grant is issued, said Boule. And agencies can’t apply until a project’s environmental review process is completed. Environmental review for the current alignment began in 1987 and was cleared in 2005, he said.

“It doesn’t hurt to study anything, but something to take into account is how long is takes to get those environmental clearances,” said Boule.

Since trains can’t pick up much speed in the downtown stretch of tracks, where stations are relatively close together, they wouldn’t get much of a speed boost by straightening out the curves, said Robert Beck, the TJPA’s senior program manager, at a recent forum at SPUR. “The curves, from our analysis, are not a significant constraint on the throughput of the system,” he said. “There are greater constraints along the Peninsula with various passing tracks, and so forth.”

“We may conclude at the end of the process that it’s best to stick with the current alignment,” Metcalf conceded. “But there are compelling reasons to at least take a look — potential ways to save money on construction, potential improvements to operations once the DTX opens, and potential benefits to the city fabric surrounding the project.”

Minor tweaks could be made to the alignment without re-doing the entire review process, said the SF Planning Department’s Greg Riessen, who pointed to changes made during the planning of the Central Subway.

There’s also a strong sense of urgency among transit advocates and San Francisco officials to get the DTX completed. The project is already tied to big, complex ventures like tearing down of a section of highway 280 and moving Caltrain’s 4th and King railyard to make room for redevelopment.

Adina Levin, an organizer for the advocacy group Friends of Caltrain, cited a city study that found the extension will triple the number of people coming into downtown SF. “We could use that connection as soon as possible, before high-speed rail gets here,” she said at the SPUR forum.

“It’s entirely possible that everything just ends at 4th and King unless San Francisco gets its act together,” said Gillian Gillett, Mayor Lee’s transportation policy director. “We have been trying to extend Caltrain into downtown, where the ridership is, since 1900.”

  • None of these options seem like they mesh well with the existing Market St. subway.

  • mikesonn

    They’ll work better than the Central Subway.

  • biking in SF

    Wow, a decade from application to award of a New Starts grant. Does anyone else think that is insane?

    I support anything that saves funds without delaying or risking the project. If the goal is to save 2 min of travel time per trip, I don’t think that is worth it. The trains won’t be going very fast given the proximity to the terminal, so are the turns that big of a deal? It’s also hard to imagine these other alternatives being cheaper given that the routes are under existing buildings, under/over a creek, etc.

  • Andy Chow

    I stand with the TJPA. The alignment has been studied since the late 1970s so there has been over 30 years worth of alignment studies and I do not want to spend another 10 years on it.

    The current alignment also continues to serve the SOMA area well. I disagree with the concept of putting another rail line in proximity to Market Street since that corridor is over-served.

  • Matt B

    I believe there are also maintenance implications of making sharp turns – it chews through the vehicles much more quickly

  • mikesonn

    2 min per trip per rider adds up quickly.

  • If the travel time to LA is supposedly 3 hours, 2 minutes is over 1% of the trip time.

  • Per

    I’m not sure if you’re saying that it is “only” 1% or that that is a big deal. But perception is important and the perception of anyone who has been slickly and speedily conveyed from LA to (almost) SF could be that the very last part of the journey is ponderous. The grand entrance into a great city should not be frustrating. Can’t we get this not just right, but impeccable?

    The point of HSR, as I understand it, is not so much the speed per se, but the fact that high speed enables higher volumes of traffic. It is the bottlenecks that will inhibit that and I would hate for SF to be deemed the bottleneck.

  • biking in SF

    That’s the same logic that’s used to justify freeway expansions – small amount of time in traffic multiplied by a huge volume of drivers. In reality, I don’t care so much if my trip is 3 hours 2 min vs 3 hours, or even 22 min vs 20 min. I want the trip time to be predictable (and enjoyable).

  • Anonymous

    Once again overpaid consultants, regardless of their discipline, have provided P_ _s Poor Planning which always achieves the same goal P_ _s Poor Project outcomes.

    Folks, enough is enough, this monster of a money drain for the ultimate satisfaction of a few political hacks is not worth the outcome of scared earth that cannot be replaced, business that cannot be brought back to life and generations of families displaced because of sheer unadulterated greed and the expense of everyone else, expect those in the leadership position driving this massive ugly boondoggle with their well known partners (anyone can fill in that blank with many names & groups)..
    We are sick of the continuous DO OVERS with outlandish political double speak explanations. As noted, enough is enough. Leave us alone and fix Sacramento by eliminating at least 40% of useless departments, authorities and agencies, cut taxes and for GOD Shake, BALANCE THE BLOODY BUDGET EVERY SINGLE YEAR.
    Governor Stop shaking your fists at us, it is rude and very unprofessional.

  • mikesonn

    Adding more highway lanes induces demand and actually slows the road… Not a great analogy.

  • Much more important than the speed of the train downtown is the
    ease of:

    Transferring between modes: Two minutes of schlepping is a lot
    worse than two minutes extra on the train. I am not clear on the
    design of the transfer stations Central Subway – BART &
    Central Subway & 4th/Townsend but if necessary even short
    moving walkways provide a psychological benefit more significant
    then a minute or two saved.

    Ticketing: We also really need to get our act together and have
    regional wide fare zones, as they have in many European cities,
    but also in effect in NYC where one fare covers a very wide area
    (in Berlin 80% of journeys are made with monthly, quarterly or
    annual passes. The BahnCard 100 allows use of long distance trains
    and urban transport in many cities for a 4 or 5000 Euros per
    years). The population movement to the East Bay is worse for those
    who feel they had to move as every journey cannot be made by bike
    or foot (like Brooklyn – Manhattan) requires a choice of paying
    more (or not seeing that friend or going to that show). It does
    not matter if people living in Oakland have more disposable
    income: It is a psychological bottleneck. Within the inner part of
    our metro area (say SF, south Marin, Alameda, west Contra Costa,
    San Mateo) it would be great to have the ability to choose to go
    somewhere not based on money but just time. Passes that fully
    cover e.g. CalTrain, Capitol Corridor, BART and SMART) would cost
    a little more. (At a meeting about bike share at SPUR the other
    day he rep of the MTC talked about it could be a regional system
    — afterwards I suggested that removal of all the duplicate
    systems and so on of the 27 diff. Bay Area transit operators could
    pay for that bike share system.)

  • Anonymous

    What a waste if money. We already have a better solution for long-distance travel: air. It has been the trend in even Europe for the past 2 decades. Cheaper, faster, safer. No brainer there. Use the $100 billion wasted on CA HSR to build local HIGH SPEED public transit underground BRT.

  • Anonymous

    It is a psychological issue, but very real. In Oslo, they have high speed rail from Oslo Sentralstasjon to OSL Gardermoen airport which takes about 25 minutes. The final 1km takes about 5 minutes because of capacity constraints, curves and hills. It is strangely excruciating to sit on the high speed train that just travelled over 150kmph and now is crawling along at walking speed.

  • lunartree

    Your generation marked a change in debate in this country. We stopped debating how to best work for a future, and it became a debate between one side that sometimes has bad ideas vs a side that doesn’t work for the future at all. Please, just stop… This is why our country has struggled to actually build anything great since the 70s…

  • lunartree

    Yeah, with how broken down our infrastructure is in this country 10 years is completely unacceptable!

  • BunkerHillPatroit

    And what generation do you put me in since you do not know me??? I would say before you leap know your facts; therefore, the reason I am responding is because your generation leaps into the morass of believe everything the liberal environment pontificates and all will be well
    lunartree, does that apply to the new bay bridge that is getting worse by the day from shoddy state managed construction of this project??? Does that apply to the irresponsible lawmakers who have totally ignored the water deficiency issue where unintended consequences of p*** poor planning have resulted in this drought??? But then again, I and others attend have to attend your class and learn how to waste money on poorly managed government projects (and the list is huge from the state and federal arenas with total disregard to the taxpayers of this state and the nation where that imbcell .

  • lunartree

    The generation that uses the word boondoggle.


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