Breaking ground

› steve@sfbg.com

The long-awaited process of rebuilding the Transbay Terminal formally begins Dec. 10 with a groundbreaking ceremony led by Mayor Gavin Newsom. But the agency pushing the project is still a long way from finding the money to build the project’s voter-mandated centerpiece: a high-speed rail and Caltrain station.

Even as the Transbay Joint Powers Authority embarks on the fully funded, $1.2 billion first phase of the project — which includes building a temporary bus station, demolishing the current building, and rebuilding the 1 million-square-foot transit hub by 2014 — the agency still hasn’t included the crucial $300 million "train box" in its plans.

Transportation planners say the train box, which is essentially the shell structure in which the train station would be built during the project’s second phase, is very important both logistically and financially (doing it later could be very expensive and disruptive to the station’s operation), particularly since the TJPA has secured little of the $3 billion needed for phase two.

"It would be a misuse of taxpayer money not to build the train box now," Dave Snyder, transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the Guardian. "The most urgent thing now is to make sure the train box is built as part of phase one."

"We are working hard to identify the funding for the train box in phase one," TJPA executive director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan told the Guardian. "It’s more expensive to build it later."

But that source must be found by spring to be included in construction contracts.

Critics have questioned whether the trains will ever arrive at Transbay Terminal’s downtown location, and those doubts grew in recent weeks after Judge Quentin Kopp, the California High Speed Rail Authority chair, publicly suggested that the existing Caltrain station at Fourth and Townsend streets would be a fine high-speed rail terminus and that tunneling the final 1.4 miles to Transbay might not be worth the money (see "High speed derailment?", SFBG Politics blog, 11/18/08).

Kopp’s comments were prompted by premature TJPA efforts to secure funding guarantees from the $10 billion in high-speed rail bond money approved by voters Nov. 4 and by his concerns about how the project is being managed by Ayerdi-Kaplan and the high-priced public relations firm she relies on, Singer & Associates.

That rift, its lingering aftermath, and the failure of the TJPA to identify funding for Transbay Terminal’s rail components have rattled those who see the project as the linchpin for the region’s transportation system.

"I don’t think it works with the rail terminal at the current Caltrain station at Fourth and Townsend," Snyder said. "The access to downtown just isn’t good enough. The trains have to come downtown."

The Transbay Terminal was built in 1939 as the truly multimodal facility that supporters want it to become again. It received both buses and the commuter trains that traveled along the lower deck of the Bay Bridge until the bridge was converted to handle cars alone in 1959. At its peak at the end of World War II, 26 million passengers used the station annually, but those numbers dropped off precipitously as private automobile use increased.

The neighborhood around the terminal at First and Mission streets deteriorated and became a redevelopment district full of dormant public land, which the state turned over to facilitate development activity that includes the terminal rebuild (with a rooftop park), a neighborhood of 2,600 new homes (35 percent of which are required to be affordable), and a series of towering office buildings (including the tallest one on the West Coast).

Land sales expected to total $429 million are the single biggest funding source for phase one of the Transbay Terminal project, with the rest coming from state and federal funds, participating transit agencies such as AC Transit, a loan that will be repaid by increased property taxes, and increases in the sales tax and bridge tolls that were dedicated to the project by past ballot measures.

The prospects of bringing trains into the terminal seemed to rely on the high-speed rail project, which Kopp instigated as a legislator in the mid-’90s. Since then, the project has been studied and certified, with its documents explicitly spelling out how trains will travel from Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station in about two hours and 38 minutes.

After years of delays in bringing the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure to the ballot, Proposition 1A was narrowly approved by voters Nov. 4. The TJPA immediately asked CHSRA for priority funding and was rebuffed by Kopp, who on Nov. 13 wrote, "Please do not attempt to secure California High Speed Rail Project funds to defray the enormous cost of the 1.4 mile ‘downtown rail extension.’ Such effort will not be welcomed by me."

In comments to both the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle, Kopp raised questions about wasteful spending at TJPA, the leadership of Ayerdi-Kaplan (who has met with Kopp and CHSRA director Mehdi Morshed just once), and the TJPA’s use of Singer and Associates, whose multiyear contract of up to $900,000 calls for paying the TJPA’s main contact, Adam Alberti, $350 per hour. "We don’t have a PR person deflecting media inquiries," Kopp said of his agency.

Ayerdi-Kaplan, who had little transit or executive experience before being appointed to the post at the urging of then–mayor Willie Brown, met with the Guardian editorial board last week and glossed over her past inaccessibility and conflicts with Kopp, saying the project is on track, she’s engaged with it, and she’s confident of its success.

"We have raised over $2 billion for the project and have a fully funded phase one. We’re still working on identifying the funding for the rail," Ayerdi-Kaplan said. TJPA has developed a list of possible funding sources, the biggest item being $600 million from the CHSRA.

She admitted that she hasn’t personally tried to contact Kopp about the funding request or worked to develop a good relationship with him or his agency, both of which Kopp has criticized. "At some point, we are going to sit down and talk," Ayerdi-Kaplan said.

She said there’s strong public support for the project. "We take a very positive approach," she told us. "You have to believe in what you’re working on, you have to believe it’s going to happen — as anything in life: you have believe your relationships are going to work, that your business is going to work, that your project is going to happen — or you have no business doing it," she said. Ayerdi-Kaplan said the project is fully certified and just waiting for funding, which should make it attractive to increased infrastructure spending proposed by President-elect Barack Obama. "There’s a lot of things that are in the works immediately with his economic stimulus package," she said.

Alberti said he has reached out to Morshed and received assurances that the CHSRA is still planning to use Transbay Terminal, something Morshed also confirmed for the Guardian — but with some hedging.

"Transbay Terminal is our terminal station in San Francisco as of now, based on our environmental documents," Morshed told the Guardian. Yet he said the authority is beginning more project-specific environmental studies, "and part of the requirements of environmental analysis is we need to look at all options."

Kopp said it’s unlikely that the Transbay Terminal — or any other project — will get a commitment for bond money soon: "We’re not going to be spending money or making funding commitments for years."