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Question and Answers

Aerial view of downtown San Francisco and the west end of the Bay Bridge, showing the location of the Transbay Terminal
Aerial view of the Transbay Terminal, bus ramps connecting it to the Bay Bridge approach, and highrise buildings of the Financial District
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Q: What is the Transbay Terminal?
A: Built in 1939, the Transbay Terminal and integral ramps connecting it to the Bay Bridge originally were constructed to serve as the terminal of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge railway, the "Key System."

Consisting of three structures with the main passenger terminal located between Fremont and First Street, the Transbay Terminal is next to San Francisco's Financial District. BART and many of Muni's bus and light rail lines are on Market Street, one block north, with many other Muni lines serving the Terminal directly. The Caltrain station is 1.5 miles south, at 4th and Townsend Streets. In 1959, when the Key System rails were removed from the bridge, the terminal was converted to bus-only use. Its primary user from that time has been AC Transit; it is also used by a number of private and public carriers including Greyhound, Muni, Golden Gate, Gray Line and SamTrans.

Its excellent location at First and Mission Streets explains the effort to save it and turn it into a regional intermodal transit hub that would connect Caltrain, Muni and BART to the regional bus systems.

More history and background on the Transbay Terminal, see:
Article from Bay Area Monitor, the Bay Area League of Women Voters' newsletter
Review of 1974 study on the Transbay Terminal

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Q: Why does the Transbay Terminal need replacement?
A: The existing terminal is an underutilized and dated depot attempting to serve a fractured regional transportation network. The Terminal is not capable of meeting the projected demand for bus services from AC Transit and other providers in the next 20 years. Over the past four years, AC Transit has experienced a 50% increase in bus ridership, and anticipates continued growth in the future. BART Transbay service is now operating at full capacity during peak hours.

Moreover, reconstruction of the terminal provides the opportunity to integrate a downtown Caltrain connection with the bus facilities, as well as a potential rail crossing of the Bay. This crossing would extend and integrate Caltrain with Amtrak services in the East Bay.

Although adjacent to the high-rent Financial District, the Transbay Terminal's environs at First and Mission is a decayed area most travelers prefer to avoid. At its heyday, before the 1958 elimination of transbay rail service, over 200,000 people per day traveled through the Terminal. A number of forces have conspired to reduce this number. The opening of BART's transbay tube 27 years ago provided an effective transit alternative for those living near East Bay BART stations or with access to a car. Removing rail lines from the Bay Bridge increased its car capacity, but that capacity is now full and no further increases are feasible. AC Transit bus services replaced the Key System trains, but far fewer transbay buses operate today, due to the advent of BART and budgetary cutbacks over the years.

Many former AC Transit Transbay bus riders have said they would gladly pay more to restore their bus services. These riders fall in that large class for whom BART is not a realistic alternative because they don't live within walking distance of BART and for whom driving a car either to BART or to San Francisco is neither feasible nor desirable.

For more information the Transbay Terminal replacement project, see the project description on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) website.

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Q: What is the Caltrain Downtown Extension?
A: Caltrain connects San Francisco to the Peninsula, Silicon Valley and San Jose. It currently ends 1.5 miles from downtown San Francisco, so it doesn't connect directly to regional transit systems and most SF Muni bus or rail lines. This discourages ridership. The Caltrain downtown SF extension would bridge this gap in the Bay Area's transit systems. See the map depicting the route of the Caltrain extension, from Caltrain's present terminus at Fourth and Townsend to the Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets. In November 1999, in approving Proposition H by a 69-to-31 percent margin, San Francisco voters made it city policy to build the Caltrain extension and a new downtown station at First and Mission Streets.

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Q: How much time can Caltrain riders expect to save with the Downtown Extension?
A: Travel time between Millbrae and Embarcadero station (Beale and Market) via Caltrain and the Muni connection currently takes on average 42 minutes. The Caltrain Downtown Extension would cut 12 minutes from this average time. Riders will be able to reach Market Street by walking one block from the Transbay Terminal, within 30 minutes, saving 12 minutes plus the considerable hassle of a transfer each way.

Planned Caltrain express service would cut Millbrae-downtown SF travel time even more significantly, to 22 minutes including walking time to Embarcadero station.

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Q: Won't the BART extension connecting to Caltrain at Millbrae solve the problem?
A: It will improve transit options for some, but most of the current problems will remain.
  • When the BART connection opens in 2002, travel from Millbrae to Embarcadero station via a Caltrain-to-BART transfer is expected to take 43 minutes on average, plus a higher fare. 43 minutes is still no better than the current average time for riders between the Peninsula or Silicon Valley and downtown San Francisco.

  • BART, unlike Caltrain, cannot run express trains. Travel between the same two points on the planned express Caltrain service would take 22 minutes, including walking time to Embarcadero station.

  • BART's route between downtown San Francisco and SFO Airport (just north of Millbrae) is 23% farther and BART has twice as many stops compared to Caltrain between the two points. BART takes the long way around San Bruno Mountain through Colma, Daly City, San Francisco's southwest neighborhoods, and the Mission District. See a map of the CalTrain and BART routes north of SFO.

  • Because BART serves this more densely populated corridor, BART trains already get crowded here in the peak direction to downtown. This BART route has little capacity to spare for a future influx of Peninsula riders. It has just two tracks nearly at their train-carrying capacity. (The same is true of the Transbay Tube.)

  • A direct Caltrain connection would be more pleasant for riders. Most of it is above ground, unlike the BART line which is almost all subway. Caltrain running to downtown would be significantly faster, less crowded, and would still make half as many (or fewer) stops than BART.

  • Besides these drawbacks, many transit riders still face the hassle of an extra transfer even with BART and Caltrain connecting at Millbrae. To get between Caltrain and areas not served by BART still will require two transfers, whether one chooses BART of Muni to connect between downtown SF and Caltrain. Many commuters to Silicon Valley, for example, come from Marin, areas of San Francisco and the East Bay too far from BART stations, but served well by Golden Gate Transit, Muni or AC Transit. The Caltrain extension and new Transbay Terminal would eliminate this extra transfer which prevents many of these commuters from choosing transit.

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Q: Doesn't Muni's Embarcadero light rail line already connect Caltrain to downtown?
A: The Muni Metro extension to Caltrain lacks the capacity to handle whole trainloads of Caltrain transfers, especially during baseball season when these trains often are packed with riders to Pac Bell stadium. Each light rail train has only a fraction of the seating capacity of a typical four-car Caltrain. Soon this Muni line will be further overwhelmed by riders to new developments now under construction at Mission Bay just south of Pac Bell Park.

Most riders connecting to Caltrain still have to transfer twice. The Muni "N" light rail line takes about the same amount of time between Caltrain and Market Street as Muni bus lines always took before the line opened in 1998. Including the "N" line, there are six regular Muni lines serving the present Caltrain terminal. Compare that with about 30 Muni lines and BART at or within two blocks of the Transbay Terminal, plus AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, and Greyhound in the Terminal. Again, this light rail line does not eliminate the hassle of having to make two transfers.

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Q: How long will a new Transbay Terminal with Caltrain take to build, and how much will it cost?
A: If the project stays on track, a newly rebuilt Terminal could be open for service in 2007 and the Caltrain Downtown Extension could be ready shortly thereafter in 2008 (see the official project description). The Terminal itself is projected to cost $888 million, with redevelopment of the land around the Terminal to pay for about $400 million of the cost. A large chunk of the money for the project will come from San Francisco, although benefits of better connected transit and better access to jobs, downtown shopping and entertainment accrue to the whole region. San Francisco is contributing revenue from the sale of land around the terminal, the joint development proceeds, and the tax increment from the redevelopment. The Caltrain extension is projected to cost an additional $765 million. San Mateo County previously set aside funds in their Measure A sales tax (approved by voters in 1988) to pay for the downtown extension as well.

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Q: For the amount a new Terminal will cost, why not improve Muni rail connections the current Caltrain station?
A: This "solution" has been proposed and rejected several times. Light rail trains on the current "N" line, even if they could hold all the transferring riders, still would require Caltrain passengers to transfer, and two transfers still would be required for riders connecting to other transit downtown.

Some have proposed eliminating one transfer by merging Caltrain and the adjacent Muni line. Unfortunately this idea has serious technical flaws. Light rail and heavy rail of Caltrain cannot operate on the same tracks without making major modifications to either train's equipment and signaling systems. Such schemes ignore the fact that Muni's tracks simply cannot be made to handle passenger loads from Caltrain. Caltrain not only runs much longer trains than what the Muni line can handle--Caltrain is double deck, providing many times the seating capacity. Such schemes also would greatly interfere with plans for the Third Street light rail and other proposed development along the Embarcadero and King Street. Development along these and adjacent surface streets cannot accommodate the longer, distributed platforms that would be required. In order to handle passenger loads, any downtown Caltrain terminal would require at least four parallel tracks and platforms. The Transbay Terminal is the only site where sufficient downtown space for this exists.

The Fourth and King station and the streets connecting to downtown aren't capable of handling the 30 or so bus routes that currently run on Market, Mission, and streets within walking distance from the Transbay Terminal. Most of these routes have buses running every few minutes.

The Transbay Terminal was designed and built as a railway station at a location ideal for its downtown proximity and connections to transit on Market Street. It is by far the best choice for the Caltrain terminal combined with regional buses. Other options could be studied. However, this question has been studied already. In the time that more study would take, we could lose the opportunity to build the facility with these key advantages.

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Q: Why has the Transbay Terminal and Caltrain extension project taken so long to get this far?
A: The Caltrain extension was included in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's 1988 Regional Rail Agreement. (Known as MTC Resolution 1876, this resolved differences between regional leaders on which rail projects should receive federal and state funding.) It is the last of the major projects on the list that hasn't been built yet.

Detailed plans to extend Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal and electrify the line to eliminate diesel locomotives have been under consideration since the early 90s.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's support for the Caltrain extension wavered since shortly after he took office in 1996. Mayor Brown halted the extension plan in June 1997 over the objections pro-transit and conservation groups. The plan was revived the following year after these groups organized a ballot initiative campaign. Also at this time, a new developer acquired key parcels of land adjacent to the terminal. Unlike the previous owners, the new developer was not hostile to the proposed extension and revitalized terminal. Mayor Brown and the SF Board of Supervisors reversed their position and endorsed the proposal. In November 1999, San Francisco voters approved the ballot initiative, Proposition H, by a 69% margin, making it city policy that Caltrain be electrified and extended to the Transbay Terminal.

Throughout this period, several BART extensions and light rail projects in the Bay Area have moved forward and have drawn from limited funding for rail projects. Caltrain and the Transbay Terminal have stalled due to insufficient interest on the part of San Francisco and Bay Area leaders. The Transbay project, as it currently stands, represents the greatest extent of advocacy of the project to date on behalf of San Francisco or East Bay leaders. The manager of the project is Maria Ayerdi of the SF Mayor's office. Legislation to acquire the property to build the project, AB 1419, is sponsored by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner. Assemblyman Kevin Shelley is its co-sponsor.

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Q: What is the purpose of the AB 1419 legislation?
A: AB 1419 transfers to the City and County of San Francisco the land occupied by the Transbay Terminal now owned by the state, along with additional surplus state-owned land parcels previously occupied by freeway ramps. Funding and construction of the Transbay project greately hinges on this land transfer. Redevelopment of the properties is expected to generate approximately $400 million, nearly half of the project costs.

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Q: Aren't they going to build it? They are going to build it, right?
A: Despite the fact that this project has been an agreed-upon regional priority for years, it is in danger and needs our help to move forward.

Securing the needed funding presents considerable challenges for this type of project, especially one enjoying such limited political support. Two major threats to funding have emerged in the past few months:

  • Bay Bridge retrofit/replacement cost overruns: this project now is projected to cost over $1 billion more than anticipated.

  • California's energy crisis now is straining the state budget. The most vulnerable programs without strong political support such as high speed rail, are most threatened with cutbacks.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority considered a resolution against the Transbay Joint Powers Authority recently, out of a thinly veiled concern that the project would compete for funds needed to extend BART to San Jose. Fortunately, the resolution failed, but the Transbay project continues to be under assault by those with parochial interests. Read more about this. These are serious threats. We need your help to keep this project from becoming a casualty of petty politics again.

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