Until major changes occur in local transit politics, the extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco will not move forward. Many have pronounced it dead.
Technically it is not dead as long as new building construction does not occur in the path of the proposed extension and station. For example, new residential highrises in South Beach now preclude proposals made in the mid '80s to extend Caltrain along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. A key issue at present is land occupied by Transbay Terminal regional bus station at First and Mission streets. This entire property must remain available to build the new station. Much of it could be lost to new highrises if a proposal goes forward to relocate the Terminal.
Brown withdraws his support
The Caltrain extension has never enjoyed strong political support. Projects such as BART extensions have enjoyed far more support, and this surely will continue in the absence of pubic pressure to give Caltrain greater priority.
During his campaign for mayor of San Francisco in 1995, Willie Brown supported the Caltrain extension. But after he had been mayor a few months he reversed that position to oppose the project.
A draft environmental impact statement/report (DEIS/R) for the extension was released in March of this year amid doubts about the extension's future. This document also covered numerous key improvements to the entire Caltrain system, such as conversion from diesel to electric propulsion. The major project would have extended Caltrain to new underground station at the site of the Transbay Terminal.
The EIR was (and still is) approximately 90% complete. In fact, according to inside sources, the actual studies for tunneling, extending rails downtown, and building a new station at the Transbay Terminal site are essentially complete. The remaining task required for finalizing these studies is for the study staff to respond to public testimony, narrow down options stated in the draft, and select a locally preferred alternative.
In June, the JPB (Joint Powers Board, the agency responsible for Caltrain), was expected to decide whether to prepare a final EIS/R. Preparation of the FEIS/R is essential to move the project forward. This decision whether to complete the document was deferred because San Francisco officials had not yet commented when the JPB met on June 5.
The extension suffered a monumental setback when Mayor Willie Brown reaffirmed even more strongly his opposition. In a letter to the JPB dated June 11, Brown asked that the environmental document for the extension be left unfinished, in other words: halt the project altogether.
Brown argued that it would be too costly to justify expected benefits, citing studies that demonstrated only modest ridership gains from the extension. (See the article, PR2000 asks for a fair CalTrain/BART comparison) Brown stated that the Muni light rail extension from Embarcadero to the current Caltrain terminus at Fourth and King Streets would make a Caltrain extension largely unnecessary. Further, he stated that the tunneled extension route provides little benefit to San Francisco, unlike the proposed Muni Third Street surface light rail route. He argued that new development is occurring near the current station and that construction of the extension would disrupt residents and businesses in its path.
Caltrain supporters fight to save extension
Proponents of regional transit generally believe that the Mayor's position owes more to the fate of specific downtown land parcels than to his stated concerns. Since 1993, city officials have been attempting to relocate the Transbay Terminal to make way for new development. Preserving the current Transbay Terminal property for Caltrain conflicts these plans. Norm Rolfe of the Transbay Terminal Redevelopment Area Citizens Advisory Committee explained that Doug Wright, a lobbyist for owners of properties adjacent to the Terminal, and Stuart Sunshine, transportation aide to mayors Jordan and Brown, have been setting policy on this issue.
Rail proponents organized to persuade the SF Board of Supervisors and the JPB to approve the completion of the Caltrain EIR despite the Mayor's opposition. Seven citizen groups, including Peninsula Rail 2000, the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, the SF League of Conservation Voters, and others, joined in support. The SF Chronicle, the SF Examiner, and the San Jose Mercury-News all wrote editorials asking that the Caltrain extension EIR be completed.
On June 30 in a 7-1 vote, the SF Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling for completion of the EIR. The mayor vowed to veto the resolution. Despite continued media attention and a letter writing campaign, extension supporters failed to achieve a veto override by the Supervisors. On July 21st, the veto was sustained by a 5-4 vote.
Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Leland Yee, Jose Medina and Sue Bierman voted against the veto. Ammiano and Bierman have been the staunchest supporters of the extension. Three supervisors reversed their votes in response to lobbying by Mayor Brown and Emilio Cruz (General Manager of Muni, Chair of the JPB, and Brown's former chief of staff).
Caltrain on Muni tracks?
Supervisor Leslie Katz, one of the sponsors of the previous resolution, changed her position based on a suggestion from Cruz that an extension could still be achieved by connecting Caltrain to the Muni light rail tracks. (JPB staff had already recommended that this proposal be examined as part of completion of the EIR.) The proposal would require converting Caltrain equipment specifications and line signaling to that compatible with Muni.
Opponents of this plan charged that gross technical problems might make it cost more than the rejected extension plan. Perhaps the most serious shortcoming of the plan is that the Muni tracks cannot accommodate double deck equipment or trains as long as those operated by Caltrain. The capacity for seated passengers on the maximum four-car Muni light rail consist is less than 300. Typical 4-5 car Caltrain consists have 600-800 seats.
The following week the Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting efforts aimed at speeding up Caltrain and examining extension proposals using existing Muni tracks along the Embarcadero and new Muni tracks envisioned to use proposed subways under Third and Fourth Streets. Some Caltrain supporters took this as a sign that SF officials still wanted Caltrain extended somehow. Efforts to do so might still lead to the completion of the EIR.
Later that week on August 7, the JPB took up the matter. Some JPB members were concerned that $4.5 million already spent on the draft EIR would have been for nought in the event that it was not completed. Although supporters on the JPB earnestly wished that the EIR be completed, they believed support was insufficient among the whole JPB to defy Mayor Brown. A resolution supporting "completion of necessary studies required to implement the system improvements" was passed unanimously. This language was carefully crafted so that it would pass.
Priority for system upgrades
JPB staff prepared a work plan that took the focus away from completing the EIR. At their September meeting, the JPB failed to take corrective action to reaffirm the intent of the resolution calling for completing the studies. Instead, the JPB is focusing its attention on "Caltrain Rapid Rail," a new plan to complete system-wide improvements to make trains faster. This choice is based on the finding of the Caltrain Market Demand Study completed last year that faster trains will attract the most new riders compared to other improvements.
JPB members, especially Mike Nevin of San Mateo County, voiced strong support for electrification, a more ambitious improvement that would be extremely effective towards making Caltrain faster. Unfortunately electrification is not an immediate priority under the Rapid Rail program.
Modernizing the signal system, replacing tracks with smoother continuous welded rail and adding new track crossovers and other projects will be pursued toward the goal of faster operating speeds. The JPB has $21 million budgeted for such projects for this year.
More studies and delays?
PR2000 president Adrian Brandt is concerned that the Rapid Rail program may be a recipe for "more of the same." Brandt is also concerned that the JPB may view it as a substitute for completing the downtown extension EIR.
Brandt acknowledges that speeding up trains and implementing signal and track modernization are important, overdue projects. However, he contends that the improvement proposals are modest and spread out over years, including plans for more studies. He fears that train riders may experience delays similar to that with the Market Demand Study which dragged on for nearly five years. Prior to its completion, JPB staff stated that improvements such as more frequent trains would have to wait till this study was finished.
Reasons that rail supporters want the Caltrain downtown extension
Reasons for extending Caltrain to downtown
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Last updated: January 9, 1998
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