Editorial: Gondola for a Train Station with No Trains

Remind us how this is the Grand Central Station of the West again?

The Transit Center's gondola was the only "transit" on hand Thursday morning. Photos: Streetsblog/Rudick
The Transit Center's gondola was the only "transit" on hand Thursday morning. Photos: Streetsblog/Rudick

Tomorrow, Saturday, buses are finally supposed to return to the Salesforce Transit Center, nine months after cracked beams forced its closure last September.

I went for my first return visit Thursday morning, mainly to try out the gondola that runs from the street to the rooftop garden.

My visit to the building was very different from when the $2.6 billion structure opened last summer.

I got there around ten in the morning. No fanfare. Not many people. And the staff seemed dour.

The gondola was shut down. I was told they were doing a security sweep or, alternatively, that they were cleaning it. It would open again “soon.”

A train in the old Transbay Station, 1939. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers Authority
A train in the old Transbay Station, 1939. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers Authority

As most readers know, the new center replaced the 1939 Transbay Terminal, which was demolished in 2010. The new building has a rooftop garden, retail space, an entire upper floor for AC Transit buses coming off the Oakland Bay Bridge and Muni bus service to Treasure Island, and an empty basement that will one day be the home of Caltrain and high-speed rail.

It was pitched to decisionmakers and the public as a “Grand Central Station” of the west.

But thanks to delays with the downtown extension project–a tunnel to connect Caltrain’s mainline with this location–it’ll be at least another eight years before any trains get there. So, for now–or starting tomorrow anyway–the Salesforce Transit Center is exactly what the naysayers call it: “The world’s most expensive bus stop.”

But as we’ve pointed out before, bus riders don’t need a giant building as much as reliable service that gets them from A to B.

In the 1960s, the capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was reduced by removing these trains and tracks. Now AC Transit bus riders sit in traffic jams with everyone else. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.
In 1959, the capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was reduced by removing these trains and tracks. Now AC Transit bus riders sit in traffic jams with everyone else. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.

In 1959, the East Bay removed its Key System electric streetcar and other commuter train networks and replaced them with bus lines. The old Transbay Terminal, originally serving trains crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge, was converted into a big bus station.

But converting the terminal into a bus station never made sense, except that the building was already there. Trains need big stations. Buses don’t. The advantage of a bus is, although it lacks the capacity or speed of a train, it can take you to multiple, flexible destinations.

Instead of having AC transit go to the new center, why not create bus-only lanes on the bridge and along the Embarcadero and elsewhere, to give East Bay commuters reliable, one-seat rides to multiple locations?

After BART opened its Transbay tube, in 1974, having a single big bus terminal for East Bay commuters made even less sense.

Today, Transbay buses only carry 14,500 riders a day, versus the 70,000 BART carries under the Bay just during peak periods. Upgrades to BART will increase that capacity by around 45 percent in the next few years.

So what’s the point in continuing to have AC Transit buses go to a single point in San Francisco, especially a location that’s so close to BART’s Embarcadero station?

Is it possible that the cracked beams and cost overruns could have been avoided if they’d forgone the bus deck and built a conventional train station? Designs could have been adapted from one of the hundreds of beautiful, arch-roofed railway stations on the East Coast or Europe. New York’s Grand Central Station is over 100 years old–with no cracks.

It’s almost as if the goal were to keep AC Transit buses off of San Francisco streets.

The rooftop garden was sparsely used Thursday morning, although one trusts it will come back when more people get word that it's open
The rooftop garden was sparsely used Thursday morning, one trusts it will come back when more people get word that it’s open

The gondola finally opened later that morning, so I finally got my ride. The views are nice, but the views from the roof deck garden are equally if not more impressive. And the elevators and escalators are a faster way to get up to it.

Perhaps the short gondola ride is a good metaphor for the center overall. Because all I could think was, “what exactly is the point of this thing?”

Until city leaders get the tunnel built so trains can come here, there really isn’t one.

The empty 'train box' under the Transit Center, as seen shortly before the whole building closed due to cracked beams last year
The empty ‘train box’ under the Transit Center, as seen shortly before the whole building closed due to cracked beams last year.
  • crazyvag

    You sort of reenforce my thoughts that Phase 1 should’ve been DTX with a park or parking lot on top.
    Buses could serve either the current Temporary Transbay or the parking lot until funding is available to build Phase 2 with bus station + ramps + park.

    Making bus station Phase 1 was a big mistake.

  • chris

    I agree that the gondola is a stupid extravagance, that the terminal makes no sense if it doesn’t also include commuter and high-speed rail, and that it’s outrageous that the multifarious powers-that-be still haven’t figured out how to get trains to the terminal.

    That said, I’m skeptical about the suggestion that AC Transit’s transbay buses should venture onto San Francisco streets to serve a variety of different destinations. A strength of the terminal is that it is within easy walking distance of a huge concentration of jobs. AC Transit’s transbay bus lines largely connect relatively low-density East Bay neighborhoods that BART doesn’t serve to those jobs. For example, I doubt that enough people who live in Piedmont work in the Civic Center or Mission Bay to support convenient bus service between those locations. The handful that do can easily transfer downtown to any of multiple Muni lines that serve those and most other San Francisco neighborhoods.

    Although I fervently support establishing bus-only lanes throughout San Francisco, requiring AC Transit buses to go any great distance during rush hour on San Francisco streets – even on lanes that are nominally restricted to buses – would wreak havoc with their schedules. They have a hard enough time navigating between the Bay Bridge and the nearby temporary transbay terminal.

  • Ethan

    With a dedicated lane on Bay Bridge there will be about 20% fewer cars coming over the bridge. That will help some with congestion downtown. SF should also implement a congestion charge to further make the streets faster for buses.

    The salesforce terminal only has capacity for 300 buses per hour. A dedicated lane on the Bay Bridge can move 900 buses per hour. Let’s say 700/hr to avoid bus lane congestion. 700 buses each with 50 passengers could be 35,000 in one hour. That’s more than BART moves today in one direction. Even after BART gets a new train control system and more trains per hour it’ll still be cramped during peak commute times. Also the East Bay is slowly adding density. If SB50 or something like it ever passes there will be more. Transbay buses have great potential to add capacity, relieve BART crowding, and serve many parts of the east bay that aren’t conveniently close to a BART station.

    So how to fully utilize a dedicated lane with 700 buses per hour? Build an Oakland Transbay Transfer Center near or next to the toll plaza. (Annoyingly Oakland is quickly filling in good potential sites like 1475 Maritime St.) Have all public buses using the Bay Bridge stop at the OTTC, then continue to dozens, maybe even a hundred+ destinations in San Francisco and down the Peninsula. Riders can still make many trips with a single transfer, and their buses take whichever freeway exit is fastest for the destination. The area of FiDi, SoMa, and Mission Bay is about 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. Instead of so many buses going out of their way to 1st and Natoma St., they should fan out to many destinations as they enter the city, roughly mirroring the way they fan out when they reach the east bay.

  • Ming

    Even if it doesn’t have trains yet, it is sort of nice to have one place where all the major transit options go. I’ve often become a little bit confused in the past about where to catch intercity buses, or how to get to Amtrak, or if there are other ways to cross the bay during off-peak times when BART is too infrequent. With a single terminal with everything, I know I can just show up there, ask around, and figure something out. The temporary bus terminal was just an empty lot. It lacked the proper staffing and ticket offices and other amenities to be a proper transportation interchange unless you were already an expert in the different transportation options.

  • theqin

    I was there on 7/3 around noon into the afternoon and there were a lot of people, more arrived as the day progressed.

    The gondola was open but it was only allowing people to ride up and you couldn’t ride it down (!)

  • theqin

    AC transit doesn’t but Golden Gate transit has a lot of tourists taking it from market street and other San Francisco stops to the presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. Their trips are entirely within SF despite the cost compared to muni.

  • “Single terminal for everything?” That’s a joke, right?

    It’s a BUS STATION. Billions spent on something that doesn’t even come close to what used to be there in 1939. It’s a disgusting shame.

  • Ming

    I’m not really sure how to get from San Francisco to Sonoma, Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Reno, or Portland without flying or taking a car, but going to the Transbay Terminal is probably a safe bet. You can grab Amtrak or Greyhound from there. You can cross the bay. You can take BART or Muni. That’s why I described it as a single terminal for everything. If you have a car, then stuff like that doesn’t matter, but if you DON’T have a car, then having a single hub for Northern California is nice. You don’t have to take out the maps of multiple transit agencies and study them for hours to figure out where they overlap and how to transfer around, which was the alternative suggested in the article.

  • Sean

    Curb space in downtown SF has never been more valuable. You cannot increase bus service without adequate layover for the bus to take CBA required breaks to use the bathrooms. Allday service especially needs layover because the drivers will need recovery time to stay on schedule as well as full meal breaks. Having a large bus terminal means the routes don’t have to deadhead empty in traffic to a spot they can park and use a bathroom. If FASTER ever goes through, we could build some really great HOV infrastructure that would allow buses to use HOV lanes when available like train tracks, with freeways stations like Sound Transit in Seattle. Here is what passes for a freeway station currently on 80: https://www.google.com/maps/@37.8232656,-122.3154034,3a,60y,231.52h,84.29t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sq5wInTsDOVcSpAR76_HWsg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    Ideally with the FASTER bus network there would be all day long haul express buses to the Central Valley and N/E/S. Bay. This would require even more meal breaks and layover. Unfortunately, this terminal charges crazy fees right now for operators because they aren’t getting much money from tenants. The revenue from tenants was costed out for a train station, so they are asking a lot right now from bus operators to make up the lost money. Sounds like your average run of the mill SF Bay Area clusterf*ck.

  • David

    They have these things called cell phones that take the guessing out of all this. Are you like 76 or something?

  • David

    Salesforce Transit Center is a monument to the stupidity of politicians who don’t understand how transportation infrastructure works. (So is the upcoming Larkspur extension of the SMART train, which will terminate over 1/3-mile from the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. Oh yeah, let’s not forget about downtown Novato not putting its new bus station next to the new SMART station too! Sensing a theme?)

    The Temporary Transbay Terminal was 90% of what was needed to run the existing AC Transit operation. It would have been far cheaper to take over another half a block to build out a full bus station. But instead we have this wrapped-in-perforated-steel monstrosity that will slowly bankrupt AC Transit, Muni, and Golden Gate Transit–forcing them to pay rent on a stupid building instead of spending said money on the service that people would rather have.

  • crazyvag

    You missed his point. In most cities, if you want to travel, the “main station” is where you go for intercity travel. The bus/train terminals are usually block apart.

    Contrast that to Oakland. Where is the main bus terminal in Oakland if you’re from out of town? BART & Amtrak aren’t connected. If you were to build a second transbay tube that would extend Caltrain to East Bay, where in Oakland should it go? Jack London Square? A new underground station below 10th Street BART?

  • crazyvag

    There’s a bus layover storage under I80 between 3rd & 4th and 2nd & 3rd streets with a ramp to enter the Transbay bus level. I think it’s for AC transit use, but with so much wasted space under I80, there’s potential to expand .

  • Sean

    Golden Gate Transit owns that property. They couldn’t (wouldn’t?) even share layover with the meager service SamTrans is currently running into downtown, so that wouldn’t be enough for AC service. There are also ingress/egress issues accessing that area, and as well as issues with overnight storage and security. Once you add up all the modern requirements for a a good location for bus layover, it makes sense to consolidate to one location that is stacked, with security watching a larger number of buses, bathrooms, even food and leisure options for bus drivers.

  • No, you can’t grab Amtrak at the STC. There aren’t any trains. You have to take a bus to the East Bay and connect at Emeryville or Jack London. Once again, this is not a single hub per your description.

  • Ming

    I used to think that too. And I’ve even schlepped over to Oakland by BART and done the merry-go-land tour of Emeryville by bus to get to the Amtrak station. Fortunately, with the Transbay Terminal, more people will know that it’s easier to just ride the Amtrak bus to the train station (this is actually important for arrivals where Amtrak might arrive hours late and public transit has stopped running).

  • Jame

    As a now former AC Transit commuter – the Transbay buses are so much more comfortable than BART. And is more convenient for me as BART is a mile away and the Transbay bus is across the street. I would regularly walk a mile to my SF office over taking the shorter BART walk commute. Even though the capacity is lower – it saves on people parking at BART. (And figuring out travel to the station)

  • What’s sad about this whole transit picture is that even *if* HSR is completed in order to travel by rail from SF to Sacto you will have to ride through SJ to the Central Valley then up the valley to Sacto.

  • p_chazz

    What an uncalled for, insulting, ageist remark.

  • David

    OP is suggesting that we spend $2.2 billion to make it easier for OP’s random journey out of town when a better solution comes in the form of a smartphone, which can be had unlocked for under $60 these days. The only person I know who doesn’t have an internet-accessible device at this point in time is my 88-year-old grandfather, so I gave OP a 12-year buffer as a sign of respect for my elders.

  • David

    AC Transit is between 2nd & 3rd, and Golden Gate Transit is between 3rd & 4th. I heard that there isn’t even enough room for the buses from both of those agencies, let alone any more from SamTrans or Muni. Real estate in SF is just so expensive that it’s almost impossible to find enough curb or parking space for buses these days! SamTrans was late to the game, which is why they aren’t even in the bus plaza at Salesforce. Muni and GGT have already maxed out the space…in a brand new facility! So much for planning for the future, huh?

  • Sean

    Samtrans was asked to pay way too much to use the facility, and AC was holding bays as a placeholder to fulfill plans in their SRTP. Samtrans saw that most people got off on Mission St well before Transbay. MV runs their SF service, so they will probably just deadhead to the Bayview yard. Not sure how many trips per bus they can squeeze with the 101 being backed up in both directions.

  • crazyvag

    I think they played the cards they were dealt which meant dividing space between 2nd and 4th.

    With Central Subway wrapping up, there might more room between 3rd and 4th, 4th and 5th. Who knows, maybe they could buy out some of the parking lots 5th to 6th and 6th to 7th. They currently store personal cars that simply create traffic that could more efficiently be used by buses.

  • relentlesscactus

    Thanks, Maria!

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