SPUR Forum: Use the value of SF real estate to fund Downtown Extension?

This afternoon in downtown San Francisco, SPUR held a forum on Caltrain modernization and high speed rail, with Gillian Gillett transportation policy advisor to San Francisco Mayor Lee, Seamus Murphy of Caltrain and Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

For a lunchtime audience, Seamus Murphy summarized the current state of Caltrain modernization. The state funding for the investment in the Northern and Southern “bookends” for high speed rail is included in the governor’s budget. The legislature needs to approve that funding separately by July 3.

If that funding is approved, Caltrain could electrify the system as soon as 2019, providing faster, more frequent, cleaner, quieter service. This would serve more riders and, according to Murphy, would enable Caltrain to increase its rider revenue share from the current ~60% to 70-80%. “With a more BART-like schedule, we would have BART-like farebox recovery.” Making Caltrain more cost-effective would significantly reduce Caltrain’s operating funding challenges.

As those who have been following the Caltrain story know, despite record ridership and standing room only conditions on rush hour trains, Caltrain’s funding is unstable, since it service depends on annual, voluntary contributions from three transit agencies, any one of which can withdraw its funding in any given year, triggering all to withdraw, and risking severe service cuts. Murphy summarized proposed approaches to Caltrain’s funding instability, including a potential 3-county sales tax measure, and a San Mateo County focused tax.

Gillian Gillett, the Mayor’s transportation policy staff person, shared some interesting and innovative ideas that are being floated in the City to help pay for the Downtown Extension to the Transbay Terminal, which would bring riders to the location of many more jobs. Caltrain owns a large railyard at 4th and King, developed to serve freight trains when the area was an industrial center. This is now prime real estate in an area that has high-tech jobs and housing. San Francisco’s 22nd Street Caltrain Station is popular even though it has poor transit and bike access, and is shadowed by 280. What if San Francisco turned the 280 segment into a boulevard, and encouraged transit-oriented development in the area? Gillett said the ideas were in the very early stages, but could help San Francisco to pay for the Downtown Extension and otherwise help support Caltrain.

After the forum, I posed similar questions to Caltrain’s Seamus Murphy about the Caltrain station areas on the Peninsula. Murphy said that it is a bit early, but once Caltrain and the Peninsula communities conclude the analysis about where passing tracks might go, there would be enough certainty about the right of way to start working with cities regarding station development rights, an established means to help support transit around the world.

These discussions are very much in line with the conclusions of the Bay Area Council study predicting that Caltrain modernization would have major economic benefits by raising property values on the Corridor. There may be opportunities to leverage those benefits to further improve Caltrain.