Transbay Terminal Dispute Threatens Federal Funding

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on January 18, 2010 with No Comments

California High Speed Trains: Business Plan.

By Matt Drake, guest editorial

January 18, 2010

In November of 2008, Californians voted yes on Proposition 1A, a bond measure raising $10 billion to construct a high speed rail line linking San Francisco and southern California.  When it is completed, we will be able to travel from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in about 2 ½ hours.

Getting this project built is perhaps the most important thing California can do to help our environment and fight global warming.  Trains release less carbon dioxide than either cars or planes, and California’s roads and airports are already operating at or near capacity.  High speed rail has been operating in France and Japan for forty years.  There is no reason we cannot have it in California.  Construction is being overseen by the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Separately from this, San Francisco is replacing the decrepit bus terminal at 1st and Mission Street and taking advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to build a true downtown train station.  Caltrain will be extended from the present station at 4th and King underground to the new station, the Transbay Terminal.  This project is overseen by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.  This will be a fabulous opportunity for San Francisco to make public transit more convenient and affordable.  Caltrain is presently jammed with people commuting between San Francisco and Silicon Valley and a downtown station will get even more people out of their cars and into mass transit.

Of course, building a new train station and extending Caltrain underground will be expensive. The entire project will cost over $4 billion and the funding has been cobbled together money from local, regional, State and Federal sources.  Fortunately, the Obama administration has made funding of transit projects a priority.  This is the ideal “shovel ready” project.  We have already started some work, we have plans in place and we are ready to go.  The Transbay Join Powers Authority (TJPA) has applied for $400 million from the federal government to get this project started. The construction plan was to build the top part of the terminal first, serving buses, followed by the underground “train box” after the funding had been located. This $400 million would allow the TJPA to get started on building the train terminal from the ground up, which would save time and money.

It is only logical that since San Francisco is already building a train station in downtown San Francisco for Caltrain, the high speed rail line should also use that same station. After all, the high speed rail is going to use Caltrain’s tracks anyway on its route from San Jose to San Francisco, so it should also use the same station. This is what everyone has been planning for since the Transbay project started. Makes sense, right?


The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has suddenly decided it wants to look at a different location for the terminal, along Beale Street between Mission and Harrison Streets. This location makes no sense and has been rejected several times in the past for many reasons, including:

  • It would require the tracks to run south along Beale Street underneath the Bay Bridge between its tower and the anchor on Rincon Hill. Tunneling in this location, underneath the anchor of the Bay Bridge, is just not realistic.
  • The Beale Street location would also require the seizure and demolition of up to 1800 residences, including 201 Mission, the Bay Crest towers, and perhaps the Watermark. This would be expensive, disruptive, and undoubtedly delayed by eminent domain litigation.  The last thing that San Francisco needs is for existing housing to be demolished!
  • It would be ridiculous to build two train stations in downtown San Francisco a couple of blocks from each other. Building one is hard enough.

Why is the CHSRA pursuing this pointless exercise?  Good question. The CHSRA’s official hangup is that the layout of the Transbay Terminal would not be able to accommodate trains every five minutes. Seeing as flights from SFO to Los Angeles are not scheduled every five minutes, this is not a very credible rationale.  Even if trains eventually run every five minutes between the Bay Area and southern California, not all trains need to originate at the Transbay location.  Some would originate from the existing Fourth and King station and others could originate in San Jose.

Apparently, the real reason is an inter-personal conflict between CHSRA and the TJPA.  Inter-agency fights are not new, of course, but this one is ridiculous because it has real consequences. The federal government has indicated that it will not give the $400 million if we Californians can’t decide where to locate the station.  The existence of this fight jeopardizes our ability to receive this stimulus money.

On December 28, the California Attorney General’s office got involved.  It sent a letter to the CHSRA saying that “the Transbay Terminal must be part of the high speed rail system” because the language of Prop 1A specified that the high speed rail system would end at the Transbay Terminal.  While this would seem to help, the letter fudges by allowing that the meaning of “Transbay Terminal” could include a different location.

It’s a rare issue that unites Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom, and Chris Daly, but they all agree that the high speed rail line should end at the Transbay Terminal.

The Transbay Terminal will not be perfect.  For instance, the turns on the track’s route under Second Street will be very tight, which will slow the train considerably.  It would also be nice if the new Transbay Terminal had space for more train platforms to load and unload passengers.  But these kinds of compromises are inevitable when one is building a new train station in a crowded urban environment.  We don’t need the perfect station.  We need a very good station that is a huge improvement over what we now have.


Our elected officials have been united in fighting against this pointless Beale Street location study.  Supervisor Chris Daly serves on the Board of Directors of the TJPA and has been a vocal advocate in favor of the Transbay Terminal and against wasting time on the Beale Street location. His office has organized an online petition that makes it easy to write to the CHSRA.  We need to sign the petition and also bombard the CHSRA with public comments telling them to adopt the Transbay location.

Granted, this may not seem like the most exciting issue, but $400 million is at stake for San Francisco. The only lever we have is to petition the CHSRA to do the right thing and focus on the Transbay Terminal. The more signatures we gather, the more likely they will do so.

Matt Drake is the General Counsel of FlyCast and is running for the Board of Supervisors for District 6 in November. He lives in central SOMA.

Matt Drake

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