San Francisco needs to radically rethink its transportation system to avoid gridlock
Speaking of dead ends, San Francisco seems to specialize in dead-end train projects. The Central Subway, which is experiencing cost overruns and possible mismanagement, is one of these dead ends. There is no current option to have trains exiting to Geary or onto Columbus and possibly running on Lombard into the Marina, and that is a shame. Having the subway exit to the surface is probably the only way to make this project worthwhile.
There's another dead end train project at the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco. Yet unlike the Central Subway quagmire, I am impressed with the scale and possibilities for the Transbay Terminal project and there is opportunity to fix this dead end. Going back to the city's business-as-usual traffic forecast, in 2040 car trips into the city from the Bay Bridge would increase 18 percent, and by 21 percent from San Mateo County. Aside from scratching my head wondering where exactly all of these cars are supposed to go, we simply need to stop this onslaught before the city becomes too dumb to move.
BART cannot solve it alone, as it will probably approach half a million riders per day by 2016, placing many downtown stations at or near capacity. BART also does not run all the way down the peninsula. Sometimes there are back-of-the envelope proposals to build a second BART tunnel under the bay, but this idea should be weighed against another idea. Rather than build a second BART tunnel to Oakland, how about a joint Amtrak California/Caltrain tunnel under the bay, and creating a true Grand Central Station of the West at Transbay? Let's punch through the dead end currently planned for the east end of the Transbay Terminal "train box" and truly connect Northern California by rail.
This does not need to be high-speed rail, but rather the conventional, off-the-shelf electric rail already planned for Caltrain, of the variety that operates in the Northeastern US and much of Europe — efficient, high capacity trains that can travel 100-120 mile per hour comfortably and safely. In conjunction with a new transbay rail tunnel, the Capitol Corridor should be electrified and right of way captured from the freight railroads. One could take an electrified "baby bullet" from San Jose, through San Francisco, and continue to the East Bay and Sacramento. As Caltrain is electrified to the south, let's also electrify the Altamonte Commuter Express trains, bring them across a rebuilt Dumbarton Bridge, and run high-frequency rail service into the new Transbay Terminal.
Understanding that this will take time to build, in the short term the Bay Bridge should be reconfigured to have bus-only lanes (and a bicycle lane on the bottom deck of the west span) and a greatly expanded AC Transit service that can relieve the looming BART crowding to the East Bay.
How to pay for these transbay dreams? A transbay rail project could get funding from Amtrak and other federal sources, requiring our congressional delegation to work for it. The state gasoline tax or eventual carbon taxes, and revenue from tolling Bay Area freeways, should be in the mix. The 101 and 280 should be tolled as well as the Caldecott Tunnel and I-80 in the East Bay, with revenue directed at electric rail in the long term and regional buses short term. And while people are talking about reforming Proposition 13 to end the artificially low property taxes on commercial land, let's remember that transit — whether Muni, BART, or Caltrain — brings massive value to commercial property owners. They should be realistically expecting to pay in. In short, there are possibilities and ways to do this.