SFO's missing link: Intercity rail

by James W. Kelly

This guest editorial originally appeared in the Friday, 5/28/97 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle (Peninsula edition only), under the title "Let's put SFO on the fast track."

San Francisco International Airport is blessed -- and bereft. Around the U.S., no others in its class enjoy quite what SFO has: An intercity rail corridor virtually at the front door. Why has our airport failed to capitalize on its advantage?

The airport has no known plan to link up with that corridor and thus encourage air travelers to begin or end their journey by rail. There is talk, but not at the airport's initiative. It comes from an ill-advised move by the city of San Bruno to relocate its train station to a grimy industrial area under an I-380 overpass, far removed from the community's residential and downtown fulcrum.

In that scenario, hope is that SFO would extend Airport Rail Transit a half-mile off airport land -- two miles from airline terminals -- to reach trainside. Airport commissioners have said they can't spend SFO's airline income on a costly idea of no demonstrated value to intermodal travel. Speculation is that SFO, San Bruno, and San Mateo's City/County Association of Governments might somehow convince state, federal, and private sources to fund the scheme.

An oversize misperception clouds the picture. Communication between SFO and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, the tri-county body in charge of Peninsula rails, relates only to passenger trains running there now, the commute service called Caltrain. JPB leaders have allowed the public to conclude -- wrongly -- that Caltrain sums up their responsibilities.

The JPB's mission is much more. It operates a vital rail corridor open to multiple uses. There's the 70-mile commute via Caltrain between San Francisco and Gilroy, for workers with jobs at each end and at many stops along the way. There are freight movements, generally at night -- bulk cargoes, merchandise, and more.

And there are the trains waiting in the wings to link San Francisco, airport, and Peninsula with destinations beyond the Bay Area, some at high speed. Such trains hold the Peninsula Corridor's future. And they are no longer just for the dreaming. Unlike a bullet train to Los Angeles, they aren't years away.

The Altamont Express, starting next year, will offer a basic commute between Silicon Valley and Central Valley communities, home to many South Bay commuters. Logic says there will be need to bring the Express into San Mateo County, aka Silicon Valley North. Dumbarton rail bridge offers a way, if political will can be summoned to make it sound and safe.

Urbanizing Monterey Bay is looking now at establishing a rail link to San Jose and Silicon Valley from Monterey, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville, where commuters' bedrooms border row crops. U.S. 101 is overburdened with their cars. In Sacramento, A.B. 731, by Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Santa Cruz, would make the link eligible for state funding. Local leaders have their eyes on passenger rail growth in the Pacific Northwest initiated by Washington state.

Their focus is Talgo, a low-slung, smooth-riding, Eurostyle train. Two Talgos carry tourists, shoppers, and commuters between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., with an extension to Eugene under review. Standard speeds will rise with right-of-way upgrades -- Talgo is designed to reach 200 mph. Washington is building more trainsets in-state to expand service. Amenities include local delicacies and two cars per train with wider aisles and more legroom for disabled passengers.

At their own peril do San Francisco, SFO, and the Peninsula ignore the near-term rewards of an A-1 train linkable with Monterey Bay in under two hours. Bonuses await, for tourism, for business, for clogged freeways. The airport could put travelers on a fast train instead of a hip-hop, uneconomical commuter flight.

On a fast train -- but where? In the dingy depths of industrial San Bruno, under a noisy freeway's noxious fumes? Or at a location of SFO's own choosing, on its own lands? The Airports Commission, when asked those questions a week ago, declined to answer, passing the ball to the JPB -- whose draft 20-year plan for the Peninsula rail corridor doesn't even mention its relevancy to SFO.

A potential station site is 17 acres of undeveloped airport land within San Bruno's city limits. It would be a boon to the airport, San Bruno (more tax revenue), air travelers, SFO workers, commuters, and local merchants alike. That acreage is probably what airport planners had in mind when SFO expansion was still on the drawing board. Early plans for today's growth indicated the airport had space for a high-speed rail link. When approved, the final plan had no such reference. Airport officials are vague as to why.

SFO's waiting game serves no one, especially if, by default, it ends under a freeway. Airport commissioners should be working overtime to bring the latest in passenger rail to SFO's front door -- now. Airport staff completely missed that point in claiming a handy rail station would "duplicate" BART. BART may have a place at SFO, but mass transit is more for airport workers than air travelers, says Airport Manager John Martin, citing airport industry studies. For what travelers deserve, action by SFO leaders is overdue.

James W. Kelly is a retired urban affairs reporter living in San Bruno.

Map of rail routes at SFO airport, 37k GIF ...shows Caltrain and proposed alignments of the Airport Rail Transit. The location for connecting the two envisioned by the author of this article is labeled with the number "5" on this map. The location "under a freeway" is labeled "3B" on this map.

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Last updated: January 7, 1998

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