San Francisco CTA Approves Pennsylvania Alignment for Caltrain Extension

But there are still arcane bureaucratic hurdles, not to mention billions of dollars in funding, to get the tunnel to Transbay built

SF Planning staff's recommended alignment, now approved, follows the original DTX plan (green), but with an extended tunnel under Pennsylvania (orange) to help reconnect Mission Bay. Image: SF Planning
SF Planning staff's recommended alignment, now approved, follows the original DTX plan (green), but with an extended tunnel under Pennsylvania (orange) to help reconnect Mission Bay. Image: SF Planning

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA) unanimously approved the Pennsylvania Avenue alignment for the downtown extension (DTX) of Caltrain today, which will one day bring rail service to the Salesforce Transit Center. Just prior to the vote, CTA Chair Aaron Peskin spoke about this week’s “Transit Week” events and his work to identify and promote projects that will be needed for the future of the city. “It’s so important that we invest in our system and its growth,” he said.

“It’s about time! The Downtown Extension should have been approved a couple of years ago,” said Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, the sponsors of “Transit Week.”

Now the question is: When will this happen? San Francisco’s planning staff inserted the following language into the resolution, to at least give the appearance of having a firm deadline for getting trains rolling directly into the Transit Center:

…the Transportation Authority expresses its strong support for connecting the Caltrain/future High Speed Rail alignment to the Transbay Transit Center by 2027, subject to funding availability, when the California High Speed Rail Authority expects to complete the Central Valley to San Francisco segment…

It will be great if those two projects come online around the same time. But with an estimated price tag of $6 billion to build the tunnel through downtown San Francisco, it’s not going to be an easy project to fund. According to the CTA, money will come from a variety of sources over the course of the project, including $95 million from San Francisco’s Prop. K tax, $300 million from bridge tolls, and $650 million from the Federal New Starts program.

The CTA has put together a cheat sheet of anticipated funding sources here.

The 'train box' under the new Transit Center. SFCTA approved an alignment today for getting trains into the station. Photo: Streetsblog/rudick
The ‘train box’ under the new Transit Center. SFCTA approved an alignment today for getting trains into this station. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

One of the reasons for the high cost is the decision to lengthen the DTX tunnel. In older plans, trains were going to use Caltrain’s current surface alignment until just before the current terminal at 4th and King, where trains would descend into a tunnel to reach the new Transit Center. Under this newly approved plan, the tunnel is nearly twice as long, extending southeast to the existing 22nd Street Caltrain station.

This eliminates all street crossings in San Francisco.

At least one advocate, Gerald Cauthen, Chair of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group, wants the city to keep looking at the earlier, simpler plan. “Emphasis should be placed on reducing the cost of DTX,” he wrote in a statement about the pending approval. “To narrow the gap between potential funding and cost, the DTX project should be subjected to additional value engineering.”

Perhaps so, but the planning department felt the street trenching and grade crossing eliminations at 16th Street and Mission Bay Drive – necessary to increase train frequencies under the early plan – would further divide neighborhoods and create blight. As stated in a previous post, Susan Gygi, an engineer who worked on the new plan, likened the street undercrossing idea to the trenching of Geary Street under Masonic and Fillmore. This is often blamed for dividing neighborhoods along Geary, something the longer Pennsylvania tunnel option would presumably avoid (although I-280 does a pretty good job of splitting off Mission Bay already).

“We support the Pennsylvania Ave. alignment,” said the Transit Rider’s Hyden, “because it’s the most cost-effective way to get it done (relatively) quickly and with full grade separation.”

So what’s next? Even a spokesperson for the CTA wasn’t clear on that. And the SF Planning Department had not gotten back to Streetsblog by press time about the next step in the process (Streetsblog will update accordingly). Despite the upbeat announcement, the Transit Riders said there are still some bureaucratic steps before it has final-final approval. That includes getting the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which will oversee its construction, to approve the supplemental report on the Pennsylvania alignment. “These bureaucratic processes can provide important safeguards,” said Hyden, but “they often seem to be just another way to delay crucial projects.”

Meanwhile, Cauthen hopes work on tunneling between the current end of the Caltrain alignment to Transbay, which was approved long ago, can move forward as a separate project. This should be possible, as even the planning department is looking at phasing in service using the surface alignment in 2026, until the full Pennsylvania tunnel is completed in 2027 under the project timeline. “Under no circumstances should the Pennsylvania Subway come to be regarded as part of DTX,” wrote Cauthen. “It is a new project that should be compared to leaving the tracks under I-280 at grade, and subjected to its own stand-alone evaluation of cost-effectiveness.”

He’s pleased, at least, that the Mission Bay/3rd Street option is now eliminated (the blue line in the lead image). That option would have cost $9.3 Billion and wouldn’t have been completed until 2031.

Some day the basement will look like this. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Some day the basement of the Transit Center will look like this. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

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