Making the Transbay Terminal work

EDITORIAL The Transbay Terminal project is way too important to get bogged down in a pointless political fight. But that’s what’s going on — and it’s the responsibility of the terminal project director, Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, to put an end to it.

Ten years from now, the terminal is supposed to be a centerpiece in the city’s transportation infrastructure. Buses from around the Bay Area will pick up and unload passengers upstairs, while Caltrain and the new high-speed trains from Los Angeles stop below ground. Shops, restaurants, and other services should make it a grand San Francisco landmark, like the great urban train stations of years past.

As Steven T. Jones reports in this issue, the project is breaking ground this week. But there’s currently not nearly enough funding secured for the rail component.

It’s going to be expensive to bring trains into the new terminal. The Caltrain line now ends at Fourth and King streets; extending it a mile or so (and boring the necessary tunnels) will cost more than $2 billion. The full build-out, including the platforms, will run close to $3 billion. As of today, the terminal authority has only shaky commitments for about $600 million of that.

The project plans mandate a multiuse terminal for trains and buses. And Ayerdi-Kaplan promised us, repeatedly, that there’s no way the project will end up getting built without the facilities for rail in the basement.

But Quentin Kopp, a retired judge who heads the state’s high-speed rail agency, has nothing but harsh words for Ayerdi-Kaplan and her operation. He insists that she hasn’t been working with him and that none of the $10 billion in bond money approved in November for the project will go to extend the tracks beyond the existing Caltrain terminal at Fourth and King. In fact, Kopp is making noises about keeping the end of the line exactly where it is today.

That would be a mistake — building an adequate terminal for high-speed rail at its present location would cost at least $750 million, money that would be better spent funding the downtown extension. But Kopp has some legitimate gripes. Ayerdi-Kaplan, who is supposed to be building the station that will serve as the northern anchor for high-speed rail, has met with Kopp only once. She’s going ahead with the project before she has any guarantees that even the framework for the underground station will be funded. And frankly, it’s not going to work for the head of the Transbay Terminal project to remain at odds with the head of the high-speed rail authority.

Ayerdi-Kaplan has managed to secure money for the first part of this project, which is an accomplishment (even if the city is going to have to accept a giant, hideous skyscraper as part of the deal). But building the Transbay Terminal with no rail connection would be a disastrous waste of money — and waiting and hoping for more money later isn’t a very good financing plan.

At this point, the project is also as much a political challenge as a fiscal and management problem. Ayerdi-Kaplan needs to demonstrate, and quickly, that she can mend fences with Kopp and get the two agencies working together — or the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which oversees Ayerdi-Kaplan’s work, needs to step in.