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Facades, Shakeups and Loans: Transbay is Officially Off Track

Despite the renderings, without leadership from the City of San Francisco, Transbay will never see trains in it's basement. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Despite the renderings, without leadership from the city of San Francisco, Transbay will never see trains. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Streetsblog readers have probably seen the stories in the Chronicle, Examiner and others that San Francisco is preparing to loan money for the completion of the Transbay Transit Center (TTC), which is now facing a $260 million construction deficit. This is all coming as the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors reportedly decided to remove Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, the executive director of the agency overseeing construction.

Here are details of the financing plan, in a release from San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee's office:

The City and County of San Francisco and the MTC have proposed to address this timing gap by providing interim financing of $260 million to complete the first phase, the bus facility. The City will issue short-term variable rate certificates at times and in amounts necessary to meet the needs of the project’s construction, a portion of which would be purchased by MTC and a portion of which would be privately placed with Wells Fargo Bank, for a term of five and three years, respectively, with an option to renew. The short-term certificates will be repaid by special taxes and net tax increment generated within the district. Given the timing of development within the district, this short-term financing, secured by the City’s General Fund, is anticipated to be repaid in approximately five to ten years.

The release from the Mayor's office justifies the move in this way:

The Transbay Transit Center is a key to the Bay Area’s continued economic vitality for the coming century, acting as the future northern terminus for Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail system within the multi-modal facility that will accommodate 11 transit operators and serve more than 45 million passengers a year.

This is more-or-less how the overall $4.5 billion project was sold in the first place. But it's hard to see how this loan can be linked to Caltrain or California High-Speed Rail or for any multi-modal aspect, when nothing's really being done to create the 1.3 mile downtown rail extension (DTX) to bring trains from Caltrain’s current King Street Station to the TTC. In fact, it's weird to see the city returning to highlighting the rail aspect, which was absent or underplayed in other recent releases from city leadership. For example, in a release sent to Streetsblog today, Supervisor Jane Kim's office announced:

The Board of Supervisors will be voting on an amendment to the Transbay Redevelopment Plan to increase the maximum height limit from 300 feet to 400 feet on Block 1 (160 Folsom Street). Block 1 is proposed as a mixed income homeownership project consisting of 391 residential units and 9,126 square feet of retail space in a 400-foot tower, adjacent townhomes, and two 65-85 foot podium buildings. With the additional height made available through this amendment should it pass, the original project’s number of affordable housing units increases to 40 percent.

It's nice that height limits are going up around this important site, but no mention of transit. The release is reminiscent of other recent announcements concerning the project. For example, this one from March 7 from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA):

Today the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board and Executive Director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, joined by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Honorable John Burton, celebrated the progress of the four-block Transbay Transit Center and unveiled the spectacular Penrose pattern awning that will soon gracefully adorn the Center. This distinctive awning features a unique pattern discovered by Professor Roger Penrose that combines elements of math, science and art.

The Authority seems to talk more about facades than functionality. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Is Transbay about facades or functionality? Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

The point is, say Transbay critics, transportation seems to have become an afterthought on a project that's supposed to be, first-and-foremost, a massive transit hub. It's about decor. It's about housing. It's about office buildings. "I'm a simple engineer. I'm all for function. I am outraged and disgusted with the city and county of San Francisco for letting the train function lag and that's the most important aspect of that terminal," said Gerald Cauthen, co-founder of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and Save Muni. He also worked on Transbay in an earlier phase. Cauthen, along with other transit advocates, regularly chastises the city for failing to give the downtown rail connection priority. "They're doing it all backwards," he said.

In fact, once the old Transbay Terminal was torn down and the temporary bus terminal on Howard and Beale was established, the sensible thing to do would have been to build the rail connection (which is literally the foundation of the building) as the very next step. After all, transbay buses already have a way to get to downtown with this temporary facility, so there is no rush to finish the new bus terminal.

The train station is literally the foundation of the new Transbay--so why finish it last? Image: CAHSR.
The train station is literally the foundation of the new Transbay--so why finish it last? Image: CAHSR.

In fact, for many years, Streetsblog and various planning agencies have called the downtown extension of Caltrain to Transbay the "the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco." And with California High-Speed Rail shifting focus to building to San Francisco instead of Southern California, the impetus for finishing the DTX has grown even stronger.

For many years, Transbay was sold as the "Grand Central Station of the West." Perhaps until Mayor Lee and the Supervisors get a funding plan in place for the DTX, the entire Transbay Project should be called the "Port Authority Bus Terminal of the West." That, at least, is more in keeping with what is actually under construction right now. And indeed, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who said in the Chronicle that he is likely to oppose the loan, was quoted as calling the project “the most expensive bus terminal in the history of humankind.”

Instead of loaning the project money, perhaps it's time to turn all attention to that underground train station and the DTX and finish the above-ground parts later. "It is surely expensive, at about $2.6 billion of the overall $4.5 billion project budget," said Cauthen in his earlier Streetsblog editorial about the DTX. "But considering the importance for Bay Area commuters, the City needs to start looking hard for those funds."

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