The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s seemingly favorite question — exactly where should high-speed rail terminate in San Francisco? — has again reared its head. By now, we are accustomed to this agency’s shifting moods — like last year, when then-chairman Quentin Kopp opined that the Transbay Transit Center was not really necessary, and that 4th & Townsend was a perfectly suitable high-speed rail terminal. Or like earlier this year, when the CHSRA suddenly demanded significant additional platform capacity at Transbay to support 40-minute dwell times and 12 trains per hour — even while its own ridership projections demonstrate that if such low headways were actually realized, runs would be woefully underutilized.
So what’s the beef now? Rather than employ the downtown extension alignment and station location previously adopted by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the CHSRA would instead like to override the TJPA’s previous efforts and study alternative locations for the San Francisco terminus in its project-level EIR/EIS for the San Francisco-San Jose segment. In particular, the CHSRA has set its sight on another terminal to accommodate its exaggerated capacity requirements — the Beale Street terminal, situated parallel to Beale Street, and stretching roughly from Mission Street to Harrison Street. But this is an alternative that was resurrected from the dead. In the 1990s, a handful of potential Caltrain downtown extension alignments were considered. Most of those, including alignments leading to a Beale Street terminal, were rejected as undesirable or infeasible:
Rejected DTX alternative alignments. Courtesy of TJPA.
California has submitted project requests to the U.S. Department of Transportation, including a $400 million request that, if granted, would allow the Transbay Transit Center’s train box to be excavated sooner rather than later, using a “bottom up” construction approach. Transbay, by virtue of its completed environmental documents, is classified as a “ready-to-go” project, eligible for a Track 1 high-speed rail stimulus grant. In just a few weeks, the Federal Railroad Administration will announce the Track 1 projects that it has selected for grants.
On the surface, the CHSRA’s interest in the Beale Street alternative appears to reflect the simple desire to comply with a legal opinion it has obtained (endorsed by Gensler Architects), which stands for the proposition that Transbay will have too few platform tracks, and that the CHSRA is legally required to study the Beale Street alternative. But it does not seem coincidental that the agency’s temper — presumably largely fueled by, or embodied in, its ever-colorful former chairman, Quentin Kopp — flares up at the exact points in time when the TJPA competes with the CHSRA for access to new pots of funding that are being made available for high-speed rail. In November 2008, it was the Proposition 1A bond, and now, it’s the high-speed rail stimulus funding. Given that the FRA will announce its Track 1 selections in the next few weeks, it is perhaps the near-term implication of the legal opinion that explains why the CHSRA has resurrected the Beale Street terminal at this time.
Californians observing this process, as well as most government agencies, believe that the location of San Francisco’s rail terminal has been finalized. The DTX alignment adopted by the TJPA is, after all, long-standing, and it is supported by a Record of Decision from the Federal Transit Administration. But if the CHSRA can introduce a fog of uncertainty by evincing interest in (and carrying out subsequent environmental review of) the Beale Street terminal, then the Transbay Transit Center will lose its air of shovel-readiness and will no longer be a promising candidate for stimulus funds. What the FRA will see is that two key agencies, the TJPA and the CHSRA, cannot even agree on the answer to a simple question like where the shovels should begin digging. That strikes a chord of administrative dissonance, and it may leave the FRA with the impression that Transbay is not ready for prime time. Why, then, would the FRA dignify it with a handsome $400 million award? California’s HSR project has a high profile and is poised to become a national model. If Transbay were not awarded a grant, then surely, given the importance of California HSR, other components of California’s application falling more directly under the CHSRA’s purview would be in a better position to receive funding instead.
And for how much longer must we endure Quentin Kopp’s anti-Transbay/DTX agenda? California voters, when passing Proposition 1A in November 2008, explicitly authorized a high-speed rail line whose northern terminus is the Transbay Transit Center. A Beale Street terminal might be near Transbay; but the length of its platforms would lie orthogonal to the length of the bus station, and it would not strictly be located in Transbay, as called for by voters. The CHSRA’s essentially obstructionist reopening of alternatives also demonstrates an utter lack of respect for a years-long land use planning effort in San Francisco. The Planning Department’s work to date strives to guide the city through the complex process of transforming uniquely valuable, downtown-adjacent former freeway parcels into a living, breathing neighborhood. But that process has operated under the assumption that a significant rail and bus transit hub would eventually be built at Transbay.
Let’s allow decade-old rejected alternatives to rest in peace. San Franciscans, and a majority of Californians, have supported a high-speed train project terminating at Transbay. I do not want to sweep under the carpet, so to speak, the Transit Center’s design flaws. Those are real, albeit distinct from the CHSRA’s pet complaints; and they would ideally be vigorously addressed, rather than weakly justified. But the CHSRA’s last-minute resurrection of Beale Street does a disservice to the high-speed train project it purports to manage. If you happen to be interested in maximizing our chance of securing $400 million of ARRA federal stimulus funds for the Transbay train box — to construct the station from the bottom-up, and to extend commuter and high-speed rail service downtown, preferably within our lifetimes — then it wouldn’t hurt to mention that to the Governor’s office, which will soon send a letter about California’s high-speed rail priorities to Secretary Ray LaHood.