Transbay team responds to SF proposal for rail right of way: study land use, but don’t touch DTX alignment

For last week’s Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board meeting, the Transbay project staff prepared a presentation with a response to the San Francisco proposal to transform the Caltrain/High Speed Rail corridor.   In summary, the Transbay team believes that proposed San Francisco land use concepts need study but are compatible with the Downtown Extension. However, the team contends that changes to the DTX alignment would have no benefit.  Other items at the board meeting ran long and the agenda item was deferred to the March 14 board meeting, so the full presentation, with staff explanation and board discussion will wait until March.

The Lee administration has been circulating a proposal to smooth the alignment for the Downtown Extension to the Transbay Terminal; to grade-separate the congested 16th street crossing by undergrounding the rail; and to transform parts of the rail right of way, which are currently used for train storage and shadowed by the 280 freeway, into mixed use neighborhoods.

The Transbay team believes that the 16th street grade separation, the development of railyard lands, and the removal of the freeway, are all ideas that would need further study, independent of the Transbay program and Caltrain electrification.

(San Francisco and Caltrain have already agreed to conduct a study in 2013 about alternative locations to store trains in San Francisco County.  If there are feasible alternatives, Caltrain could plan to electrify 4th and King in a way that would permit moving the train storage.)

However, the Transbay team make the case that there would be no benefit to smoothing the alignment of the Downtown Extension of the railway to Transbay Terminal.  The presentation contends that a revised alignment would not be cheaper to build, since it would be longer; it would not be quicker to build, since the schedule change would set the project back by at least a decade, and improvements to the operating speed of High Speed Rail would not be substantial or cost-effective.

The Lee adminstration disagrees, according to its application to the Federal Transportation Authority to fund a study of alignment alternatives.  The grant application proposes to analyze rail alignments for High Speed Rail and Caltrain, and station locations for Caltrain in a 7 mile corridor, to assess opportunities to improve travel times, minimize construction costs, and reduce conflicts with surface streets and highways, while optimizing livability and land use. The study would be used to identify a “locally preferred alternative” for a supplemental Environmental Impact Report that would likely be needed to authorize construction and initial service.

The study would examine the potential for:

* increasing the turn radius of the alignment, which currently includes two stairstep curves to improve travel times and decrease maintenance costs

* modifying tunneling locations to minimize surface disruption and reducing costs,

* eliminating at-grade crossings to reduce travel delay and improve safety;

* reconnecting the street grid across the rail corridor for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers;

* changing station locations to optimize ridership and local transit access;

* analyzing opportunities for Transit Oriented Development at the site of Caltrain’s current 4th and King railyards, and other locations in the 7 mile study area.

The options to be studied include the scenario that the Mayor’s Transportation Policy advisor Gillian Gillett described at a January SPUR meeting to extend the tunnel to 16th street, to take down the end of the 280 after 16th, and move the station currently at 4th and King, as well as other scenarios to extend the tunnel to 25th street, to relocate the 22nd street station to 16th, and to remove or retain the freeway (see the grant application for the full set of alternatives).

The application requests $700,000 in federal funds with $300,000 in local matching funds, including $100,000 from Caltrain and $200,000 from San Francisco’s Proposition K funds.

So, the Transbay team argues that changing the alignment would not save money or time, and would not materially improve rail performance.  The City of San Francisco contends that these are open questions that need further study.

For more of this important discussion, you can attend the next Transbay Joint Powers Board meeting on March 14, or watch it online.