Station leaves the train

Pub date March 18, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY The Transbay Terminal rebuild is moving forward, but this multi-modal downtown transportation station seems to be pulling away from what was supposed to be its showcase centerpiece — the California High-Speed Rail Project — before it can satisfy the design and capacity needs rail officials require.

San Francisco officials from Mayor Gavin Newsom to Sup. Chris Daly, who sits on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board of Directors, all say high-speed rail must be a component of the Transbay Terminal. Yet they were caught off-guard when the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) recently made clear that the station would need to handle up to 12 trains per hour, more than double what current station designs can accommodate.

Even as phase one of the station got underway in December (see "Breaking ground," 12/10/2008), it lacked the more than $300 million needed for a so-called train box that would make it easier and cheaper to later bring high-speed rail and Caltrain into what would otherwise be a $4.3 billion bus station and commercial complex.

TJPA officials were struggling with how to secure that money, ideally through federal stimulus funds, when officials from CHSRA and Caltrain told a Feb. 25 Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting that current designs were inadequate for their needs (see "Stimuutf8g transit, 3/4/09).

While the demand for straight platforms, rather than the curved ones TJPA designed, can be fairly easily addressed, the volume issue is far more significant and costly. During a March 12 TJPA meeting on the issue, engineers said that adding the third floor of trains that would be needed to handle 12 trains per hour would add $1 billion to the cost. Even if no train box is built, TJPA officials say that just the foundation work and deeper dig needed for the higher capacity would add $500–$700 million to the cost of the project’s first phase.

The good news is the federal stimulus package sets aside $8 billion for high-speed rail development, and Transbay Terminal is one of the few shovel-ready projects out there that would qualify for immediate assistance. The bad news is the criteria for attaining those funds won’t be ready by the time TJPA plans to sign its construction contracts in late May.

Delaying the project would not only increase costs and forestall the immediate economic stimulus impacts of the construction, it would also anger bus transit agencies such as AC Transit, which kicked in $57 million to the project. "AC Transit expects the TJPA to meet its commitment to AC Transit and its passengers, as well as keep the construction of phase one on schedule," AC Transit attorney Kenneth C. Scheidig wrote to TJPA March 11.

At the March 12 meeting, TJPA members uniformly reacted with dismay to their dilemma, criticizing CHSRA for its unrealistic demands. Program manager Emilio Cruz said the agency had designed to high-speed rail specifications and only learned in January of the desire for trains to run up to every five minutes during peak hours.

"They were presented without adequate justification for why they need increased frequency," Cruz told the TJPA board as he offered his analysis for why that frequency isn’t needed to handle the 12 million annual riders the system predicts for 2030 and noting that Tokyo — which has far greater volume and density — is the only high-speed rail station in the world to run 12 trains per hour.

CHRSA executive director Mehdi Morshed said Cruz isn’t a rail expert and disputed his analysis, noting that Tokyo and Paris each have multiple stations that together run far more than 12 trains per hour. He also noted that the BART system is at capacity after just 30 years.

"We are building a train that has the capacity to hold not just the riders in 2030, but beyond that," he said. "They are trying to fit the high-speed trains of the future in a very limited space, and we’re telling them that’s not adequate."

Morshed said his agency is still years away from getting into station design, but has been as accommodating as possible with TJPA’s desire to move forward now. Daly and others have pointedly criticized CHSRA and its chair, Quentin Kopp, to which Morshed said, "Sure, we can take all the blame, but how is that going to help San Francisco get its station?"