Facades, Shakeups and Loans: Transbay is Officially Off Track

Despite the renderings, without leadership from the City of San Francisco, Transbay will never see trains in it's basement. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Despite the renderings, without leadership from the city of San Francisco, Transbay will never see trains. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Streetsblog readers have probably seen the stories in the Chronicle, Examiner and others that San Francisco is preparing to loan money for the completion of the Transbay Transit Center (TTC), which is now facing a $260 million construction deficit. This is all coming as the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors reportedly decided to remove Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, the executive director of the agency overseeing construction.

Here are details of the financing plan, in a release from San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee’s office:

The City and County of San Francisco and the MTC have proposed to address this timing gap by providing interim financing of $260 million to complete the first phase, the bus facility. The City will issue short-term variable rate certificates at times and in amounts necessary to meet the needs of the project’s construction, a portion of which would be purchased by MTC and a portion of which would be privately placed with Wells Fargo Bank, for a term of five and three years, respectively, with an option to renew. The short-term certificates will be repaid by special taxes and net tax increment generated within the district. Given the timing of development within the district, this short-term financing, secured by the City’s General Fund, is anticipated to be repaid in approximately five to ten years.

The release from the Mayor’s office justifies the move in this way:

The Transbay Transit Center is a key to the Bay Area’s continued economic vitality for the coming century, acting as the future northern terminus for Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail system within the multi-modal facility that will accommodate 11 transit operators and serve more than 45 million passengers a year.

This is more-or-less how the overall $4.5 billion project was sold in the first place. But it’s hard to see how this loan can be linked to Caltrain or California High-Speed Rail or for any multi-modal aspect, when nothing’s really being done to create the 1.3 mile downtown rail extension (DTX) to bring trains from Caltrain’s current King Street Station to the TTC. In fact, it’s weird to see the city returning to highlighting the rail aspect, which was absent or underplayed in other recent releases from city leadership. For example, in a release sent to Streetsblog today, Supervisor Jane Kim’s office announced:

The Board of Supervisors will be voting on an amendment to the Transbay Redevelopment Plan to increase the maximum height limit from 300 feet to 400 feet on Block 1 (160 Folsom Street). Block 1 is proposed as a mixed income homeownership project consisting of 391 residential units and 9,126 square feet of retail space in a 400-foot tower, adjacent townhomes, and two 65-85 foot podium buildings. With the additional height made available through this amendment should it pass, the original project’s number of affordable housing units increases to 40 percent.

It’s nice that height limits are going up around this important site, but no mention of transit. The release is reminiscent of other recent announcements concerning the project. For example, this one from March 7 from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA):

Today the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board and Executive Director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, joined by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Honorable John Burton, celebrated the progress of the four-block Transbay Transit Center and unveiled the spectacular Penrose pattern awning that will soon gracefully adorn the Center. This distinctive awning features a unique pattern discovered by Professor Roger Penrose that combines elements of math, science and art.


The Authority seems to talk more about facades than functionality. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Is Transbay about facades or functionality? Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

The point is, say Transbay critics, transportation seems to have become an afterthought on a project that’s supposed to be, first-and-foremost, a massive transit hub. It’s about decor. It’s about housing. It’s about office buildings. “I’m a simple engineer. I’m all for function. I am outraged and disgusted with the city and county of San Francisco for letting the train function lag and that’s the most important aspect of that terminal,” said Gerald Cauthen, co-founder of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and Save Muni. He also worked on Transbay in an earlier phase. Cauthen, along with other transit advocates, regularly chastises the city for failing to give the downtown rail connection priority. “They’re doing it all backwards,” he said.

In fact, once the old Transbay Terminal was torn down and the temporary bus terminal on Howard and Beale was established, the sensible thing to do would have been to build the rail connection (which is literally the foundation of the building) as the very next step. After all, transbay buses already have a way to get to downtown with this temporary facility, so there is no rush to finish the new bus terminal.

The train station is literally the foundation of the new Transbay--so why finish it last? Image: CAHSR.
The train station is literally the foundation of the new Transbay–so why finish it last? Image: CAHSR.

In fact, for many years, Streetsblog and various planning agencies have called the downtown extension of Caltrain to Transbay the “the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco.” And with California High-Speed Rail shifting focus to building to San Francisco instead of Southern California, the impetus for finishing the DTX has grown even stronger.

For many years, Transbay was sold as the “Grand Central Station of the West.” Perhaps until Mayor Lee and the Supervisors get a funding plan in place for the DTX, the entire Transbay Project should be called the “Port Authority Bus Terminal of the West.” That, at least, is more in keeping with what is actually under construction right now. And indeed, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who said in the Chronicle that he is likely to oppose the loan, was quoted as calling the project “the most expensive bus terminal in the history of humankind.”

Instead of loaning the project money, perhaps it’s time to turn all attention to that underground train station and the DTX and finish the above-ground parts later.  “It is surely expensive, at about $2.6 billion of the overall $4.5 billion project budget,” said Cauthen in his earlier Streetsblog editorial about the DTX. “But considering the importance for Bay Area commuters, the City needs to start looking hard for those funds.”

  • gb52

    Yes, it’d be great to have it done sooner rather than later, but the fact is we’re not funding transit and projects like these in a sustainable manner. Secondly we are dealing with a lot of moving pieces, like the teardown of I280 or redevelopment of the caltrain railyard. Each new idea gets studied and sent out for public comment. And then Caltrain electrification was delayed for years. It’s a long drawn out process, but it’ll happen. This isn’t a waste of money, but sadly we haven’t been able to get our transportation act together and get these projects done sooner rather than later.

  • HayBro

    “In fact, once the old Transbay Terminal was torn down and the temporary bus terminal on Howard and Beale was established, the sensible thing to do would have been to build the rail connection (which is literally the foundation of the building) as the very next step.”

    I think the foundation of the Transbay Terminal is designed to accept trains without having to be rebuilt. If that wasn’t the case, then I would agree that things are backwards. I’m not necessarily supporting the idea of letting the rail connection languish, but I’d rather have the Terminal built now using 2016 dollars rather than wait for the myriad of DTX (or alternate plan) pieces to come together to build the connection AND the terminal using 2026 dollars. Also, having a new terminal may create more of an impetus to extend the rail than if it wasn’t there.

    Anyway, many people are not thrilled with the DTX design and want to explore other designs, including those associated with an I-280 teardown, which will add another 10 years probably to any extension.

  • Ted King

    Here’s a wild thought – the TBT footgun has been firing regularly since the construction of the Moscone Convention Center (MCC). That’s right, they could have had Caltrain service to the OLD TBT back in the early nineties (1990’s) by making a tunnel box part of the MCC’s design. Then they could have required other new buildings also include segments of the DTX-precursor instead of cash development fees. All in the spirit of “TRANSIT FIRST”.

  • A recent 99PI episode talks about a giant bus terminal in Tel Aviv that turned into a real clusterfuck. The Transbay project hopefully won’t turn out as bad as the Tel Aviv thing, but there’s some lessons to be learned from that project nonetheless.


  • Jeffrey Baker

    I can’t really agree that the temporary bus terminal is an acceptable substitute for actual terminal. With all the street traffic around there, and the counterproductive layout of the terminal itself, the temporary terminal added ten minutes to every bus trip. Not good at all.

    If they had made Folsom an exclusive busway then I’d be right with you.

  • sojourner_7

    The I-280 tear down shouldn’t happen and hopefully won’t happen. It would result in regional transportation clusterf**k. It’s about a money and land grab more than any improvement. Ex Mayor Agnos is on the record as willing to do everything and anything to prevent the nonsense from being approved.

  • murphstahoe


  • murphstahoe

    I honest think the DTX will never happen. By the time it somehow becomes a “real” project with funding and tunnels being bored, the whole equation of the world will flip. Heavily shared electric self driving car fleets at best, banning of combustion engines with little plausible replacement at worst.

    Add that up and we go to 2 minute headways on the Central Subway with no cross traffic on 4th and we don’t need a tunnel. And I’ll eat all the crow I need to when I complained the CS was a loser project. But that’s just happenstance.

  • sojourner_7

    Single-minded transit nuts. BAD. BAD. Myopic commenters. BAD! BAD! Tearing down a expensive highway that was just completed in 1997? BAD! BAD!

  • vcs

    Ok, lets rephrase Sojurner’s post:

    “The I-280 teardown will never happen because it will require somewhere around ten billion dollars to relocate the CalTrain/HSR rail system underground, and our congressional delegation isn’t really that interested in finding the money.

    Selling off the Caltrain yard to property developers would be profitable, but is ridiculous without an alternative. But nobody has even suggested an plausible alternative, because the obvious places are owned by speculators and require billions of dollars of superfund cleanup.

    Whatever short-term real-estate development could be possible in this area should be balanced with the enormous public costs that would be required to make it happen.”

    (Also, You troll POST IN ALL CAPS as much as you’d like, but in the end you’ll all vote for people who don’t care about any of this crap.)

  • dat

    I was there this past New Years! Place is nutty!

  • murphstahoe

    “it will require somewhere around ten billion dollars to relocate the CalTrain/HSR rail system underground” – [citation needed]

  • mx

    2 minute headways on the Central Subway? Bahahahahah. This is Muni we’re talking about here. It will be three trains stuck in “subway traffic” in a row followed by a 12 minute wait.

  • njudah

    the person recently removed as head of the Transbay project was one of Willie Brown’s secretaries, elevated to a big job that she never even showed up for. What could POSSIBLY go wrong? But by all means, someone say it’s all Peskin’s fault.

  • david vartanoff

    Build the rail part first, and if necessary, then replicate theTBT on top. The rail link is the ONLY needed upgrade.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Selling off the Caltrain yard might not even be that profitable at all.

    See “Site Ownership and Jurisdiction” section in https://t.co/V7qaJMmT4R

  • helloandyhihi

    “Each new idea gets studied and sent out for public comment.”

    Bold, ambitious, expensive projects that will transform the city like the DTX need to be sold. Without a high-ranking elected official like the mayor to communicate why we need the DTX, “public review” is simply throwing the project to NIMBY and politically-motivated sharks who will tear it apart.

    Where is Mayor Ed Lee? Why isn’t he pushing the DTX? Oh right. Protestors have dogged all of his recent appearances so he’s hiding from the public.

  • Mike Jones

    The Transbay Terminal, firmly in the financial district, is a great place to terminate Caltrain, Samtrans and Goldengate Transit, but less so AC Transit. As for HSR, the existing Caltrain location would do just fine with much more room to play with.

  • Andy Chow

    The DTX project is being distracted by things like I-280 tear down, railyard redevelopment, and possible realignment to serve the Warrior’s arena. Either none of these things happens and trains stuck at 4th & King, or that some of that happens and with trains to Transbay.

    This will add a lot of time, likely a lot of money, and may stir up opposition overall because of opposition to one of the elements. It is very obvious that Lee and his staff want this to be their legacy, rather than continuing with past plans.

  • p_chazz

    Maybe the Transbay JPA can rebrand it as the “Port Authority Bus Terminal of the West” because that’s where it’s headed, fast.

  • p_chazz

    Murph isn’t troll posting, he’s ironic troll posting. There is a big difference.

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  • neroden

    Yep. LA Union is the Grand Central of the West.

  • neroden

    The Central Stubway…. gah. And why isn’t there a Geary Subway yet? After a few blocks of downtown the center lanes of Geary were actually streetcar exclusive lanes in the past. It would be so easy to have a full Muni line down Geary with exclusive lanes until Gough Street, and subway from there to Market. But noooo, this is San Francisco, the “can’t do city” where problems simply never get fixed no matter how obvious the solutions are.

  • neroden

    I-280 is worthless for transportation, and a blight.

  • neroden

    For some reason, politicians have been sandbagging the Caltrain/HSR tunnel under the Bay for decades. Even though it always comes out as the best option in every study

    Once you START by assuming a Caltrain/HSR tunnel under the Bay, the rest of the projects start becoming obvious and there isn’t much to argue about…


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