Breaking ground

The Transbay Terminal project moves forward — without funding for its rail component

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.