Category Archives: Transbay Transit Center

High Speed Rail Drama: A Victory for California

California has done it again. In the re-appropriation of Federal high speed rail funds, California received an additional $624 million in funding for it’s high speed rail program. Crucially, this announcement means that the first segment of the CAHSR program, a line from Fresno to Corcoran, will be extended to Bakersfield. This extension will largely silence many critics who were already calling this segment a “line to nowhere.” Fresno and Bakersfield have a total combined MSA population of 1.7 million, and a segment from perhaps Merced to Bakersfield could be considered the minimal operating segment and actually run revenue service. At the very least, Amtrak California’s San Joaquins line could use the line to massively reduce travel time in the corridor.

The political ramifications of building the initial segment of CAHSR in the Central Valley are actually quite positive. By building a greenfield (entirely new right of way) line in the Central Valley rather than focusing funding on improving commuter rail services in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas, the California High Speed Rail Authority is essentially guaranteeing the future completion of the system – political desire will come from both the LA and San Francisco areas, forcing the eventual connection of this Central Valley segment with San Francisco and Los Angeles. Equally important is ensuring the continued support of the state and federal governments in completing spur lines to Sacramento and San Diego, and even potentially connecting to the planned Desert Xpress privately-funded HSR line between Victorville and Las Vegas. Far in the future, a high speed line from Sacramento to Eugene, Oregon could be feasible and connect all the way up to Vancouver, BC.

I am strongly confident that the approach the CAHSRA has taken to building high speed rail in California will be successful. In my past occupation, I was able to meet many of the people behind the Authority, and I can tell you that they mean business. The Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, the eventual northern terminus of the initial line, is already under construction and will be a shining example of what high speed rail stations can do for economic development and urban renewal in California and indeed the entire US. Furthermore, I am convinced that once California’s initial HSR segment from San Francisco to Los Angeles opens, and likely turns a profit, politicians in Sacramento and Washington will become convinced that high speed rail, in the right markets, is a wise infrastructure investment. Many people thought the Interstate Highway System was destined to be a failure before it was built. The vastly improved mobility of freeways pales in comparison to the benefits of high speed rail. Just look at Paris and London – two cities on approximately the same scale as Los Angeles – San Jose – San Francisco. The air market between these two cities died off quickly with the opening of the high speed rail line and subsequent openings of further high speed segments on the Britsh side have made the service even more popular.

I cannot stress how important high speed rail is for the future of California. Wisconsin and Ohio’s loss is our gain here in California, and as soon as the EIR/EIS is complete, CAHSR could begin construction within 12 months. That means two years from now, or even slightly earlier, the shovels could be hitting the dirt in Fresno and Bakersfield. I know I’ll be there to ride on the first train, and will be a regular user of CAHSR when the Los Angeles – San Francisco segment is complete. I hope that day arrives sooner rather than later. I’m tired of the TSA microwaving my body so I can get on a highly polluting aircraft for the short one hour flight home. I rest my case.

A True Rapid Transit Plan for San Francisco

Considering the huge amount of time it took me to create this map, I only have a few words to go with it:

The main ideas on this map are:

1. Geary/19th Avenue BART Line including a Second Transbay Tube

2. Folsom/Van Ness BART Line also connecting to the Second Transbay Tube

3. Replacing the N-Judah Muni Metro line between 19th Avenue and the Market Street Subway with tunneled LRT

4. Los Angeles-style busways on San Francisco freeways, including mid-freeway stops as noted

5. A north-south LRT line in the Sunset

6. A bus terminal and transit hub for the Golden Gate Bridge at Van Ness and Geary

7. Extension of the F-Market and E-Embarcadero lines to the Palace of Fine Arts

8. Extension of the T-Third Street line to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf

9. Infill stations at 30th/Mission and Oakdale

A Better Solution to Transbay Transit Capacity

As I sat on my Transbay bus last evening, grinding slowly through traffic on the Bay Bridge and Eastshore Freeway, I couldn’t help but think that all of the talk about a second Transbay Tube is a bit silly. AC Transit already carries over 25,000 passengers over the Bay Bridge every day, and that’s with barely any bus improvements like proof of payment, exclusive lanes and increased service frequency. With a single exclusive bus lane on the Bay Bridge, AC Transit could literally triple its efficiency, allowing for twice as many Transbay runs with the same equipment and personnel.

From pure observation today, I’ve concluded these things: carpool lane violations are poorly enforced, infrastructure for buses on Bay Area freeways is hopelessly lacking and AC Transit’s service is very convenient and punctual. To address the first observation, it was plainly obvious, looking out the back window of my bus, that most drivers in the carpool lane on Interstate 80 around Emeryville had less than three people in their vehicles. The somewhat silly idea of carpool or HOV lanes is that they will move more quickly than general traffic because very few drivers have two other passengers with them in the car. Traffic in the carpool lane was also stopped, eliminating the incentive to carpool and carry more passengers. If the incentive is eliminated, the carpool requirement must be raised to more than three passengers, enforcement must be dramatically increased, and, even better, all carpool lanes should be converted to exclusive bus operation. Even an HOV freeway lane only has 12,000 person/hour capacity. A bus lane with frequent buses (~5 min headways, similar to AC Transit’s current operation) can carry 30,000+.

Put it this way: a new Transbay Tube would cost over five billion dollars and take at least 15 years. These bus improvements could be done tomorrow. Literally. All that is needed is a change of signage and a few extra bus drivers (just hire some unemployed truckers). They might even save money over AC Transit’s current Transbay service because of the reduced delay. The only losers here are drivers. They already use freeways for free (mostly), park for free, and pollute the air for free so why not cause them a little bit of pain for the greater good? Well I’m going to answer my own rhetorical question: you can’t make life worse for autos because of the lobbying power of both the automobile industry and the overwhelming majority of Americans who use the automobile as their main, or even sole, method of transportation.

Currently AC Transit Transbay Service fills a niche role, carrying mostly passengers who do not live near BART lines. The busiest lines for AC Transit are the P and V, which serve Piedmont and Montclair, and the O, OX and W, which serve Alameda. Both of these areas are poorly served by BART yet have a large amount of commuters to San Francisco. BART’s largely suburban-oriented lines and service have left large swathes of Berkeley and Oakland underserved, including, ironically, transbay bus stops right under BART tracks yet over a mile in any direction from a BART station. I find myself in this situation, living only a few blocks from BART yet being a mile from a station. I am the ideal passenger for AC Transit and if the bus were made even faster and more convenient than cars with dedicated infrastructure, more frequent service and increased hours of operation, people who live between BART stations, or miles away from BART, would have a viable alternative to driving to San Francisco.

One last word. With the construction of the new Transbay Transit Center, facilities and capacity for bus passengers in San Francisco will dramatically improve. To spend billions of dollars on one side of the bay for transit would be a travesty without matching the investment on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center: A New Approach

Cross Section of the Transbay Transit Center, courtesy of transbaycenter.org

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center is an ambitious project consisting of a train and bus terminal, several gigantic high rise buildings and an elevated park above the terminal. The Center will replace the current Transbay Terminal bus facility, a relic of streetcar service across the Bay Bridge. The current facility has low ceilings, low capacity and is seismically unsound. It is also unable to accept underground train platforms.

With the understanding that a new transit center is needed, several options were explored regarding the train box under the station. In the original plan for the center, the bus platforms were to be built first, opening in 2015, with the train platforms and subterranean mezzanine being built later, under the functioning transit center. Such a plan contains the obvious fallacy that building a massive train station under an operating building is massively expensive, especially when the building was not conceived in the first place to accept such underground facilities. This argument was one of the main reasons why a new transit center is being built in the first place.

A stroke of fate has enabled the designers of the Transbay Transit Center to change their approach from top-down to bottom-up. High speed rail money from the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) is paying the 400 million dollar cost of installing the train box at the same time as the rest of the transit center. 400 million may be difficult to stomach for a train station, but given the status of infrastructure spending in the United States, leaving the train box for later would likely have been its death knell. Estimates for the future cost of a train box under the completed transit center were nearly double the cost. I applaud the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and its consultants for bringing together this funding and ensuring that the transit center will fulfill its potential.

The inclusion of the train box at the beginning of the project brings many issues with its design to the forefront of discussions on the transit center. The CAHSRA has required platform space to run trains at five minute frequencies. This requirement is ridiculous. Not even Japan’s Shinkansen High Speed Rail Service, the busiest in the world, runs at such frequencies. As you can see in the image above, this mandate by CAHSRA robs platform space and tracks from Caltrain. The current train box arrangement would only allocate Caltrain two tracks and one island platform, limiting capacity into the Transbay Transit Center to less than current peak hour headways on the line. Any future service increases to cope with the inevitable increase in ridership due to electrification and direct service to Downtown San Francisco could only run as far as the current 4th & King terminal due to capacity constraints at the Transbay Transit Center platforms. This artificial constraint would defeat much of the purpose of the Caltrain Downtown Extension Project to connect Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center. The train box will fit six tracks and three island platforms. Instead of a 4/2 split in favor of CAHSRA, the spilt should be the oposite with Caltrain being allowed use of 4 tracks. The demand and frequency for Caltrain’s local service along the peninsula will be much higher at all times of day, hence it should have more track space.

Another concern I have with the current design of the Transbay Transit Center is the lack of coordinated planning between the TJPA and BART about a possible future BART station in or adjacent to the complex. The need for a second Transbay Tube is widely recognized and a station at the Transbay Transit Center would be ideal, permitting a direct connection between high speed rail, Caltrain and BART. Provisions for a BART station could include simple, low-cost fixtures like entrance bellmouths, locations for fare gates and a larger mezzanine to accommodate future BART riders to the transit center. Like the train box, these (relatively) inexpensive inclusions to the project would eliminate future costs and integrate a future rapid transit station into the transit center.

My final concern about the current iteration of the Transbay Transit Center project is the slow speed at which construction on adjacent development is proceeding. Over six high rise buildings are planned as part of the project and much of the revenue TJPA is counting on is from the sale of currently vacant land owned by the authority to developers. Many of these towers were supposed to have begun construction in 2009 or earlier this year. Obviously current economic conditions have depressed property values and made large real estate developments less attractive. Fortunately, the towers near the Transbay Transit Center are transit oriented development in its purest form, with no limits on density or height. Hopefully developers will acknowledge this fact and gamble that the market for housing in urban areas will rebound, otherwise a large chunk of TJPA’s revenue will be lost.

With a nod to the future the Transbay Transit Center has refocused its priorities and now will be built in a more cost effective and timely manner. Hopefully this forward looking strategy will be further adopted, designing the terminal to be BART-ready for the time when the second transbay tube will be built. Regardless of this outcome, the Transbay Transit Center will be one of the most exciting transit stations in the world, connecting all parts of the Bay Area to the rest of California and providing the massive, Grand Central Terminal-style transit station that the Bay Area has always lacked.