San Francisco and the Bay Area residents have waited many years for a new transbay terminal in downtown San Francisco, and they have approved taxes to fund the long-planned project. However, the proposed multi-modal transit station could get waylaid by cost concerns, competing interests and even a giant condominium tower being built where a rail line is planned.
Prospects for the project — estimated to cost about $2 billion to build, and $4 billion in total when financing costs are included — improved in June when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an environmental impact report. But a 51-story condominium project being built in the path of a rail line into the terminal has led to a lawsuit and increased expenses.
The current transbay terminal building, 55 years old and decaying, stands out in the gentrifying Mission Street corridor in San Francisco. Surrounded by high rises, the building serves as a terminus for a number of bus lines throughout the region. When the Bay Bridge opened in the 1930s, the terminal was also used by trains crossing the bridge. Today, the transbay terminal is better known as a gathering place for homeless people, and has no connections to the major train lines in the region. Amtrak lets off its passengers across the bay in Emeryville.
The new transbay terminal is supposed to tie Bay Area transit threads together. Caltrain riders from the South Bay would arrive by a new underground line at the terminal, and could quickly connect to BART and Muni trains via a block-long automated walkway. In addition, a proposed bullet train connection would whisk passengers to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours.
The estimated cost of the terminal is $1 billion, with the 1.3-mile underground train extension costing $977 million more. Plans for the building include a 600,000-square-foot building of six stories. It would serve buses from transit districts in San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties, along with Greyhound. Six train tracks will be built on the bottom floor. Redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood would also increase, with the addition of 3,200 housing units, retail stores, offices and a hotel.
The transbay project is being overseen by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA), whose members are the major project stakeholders — San Francisco, the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District, and the Peninsula Joint Powers Board, which runs Caltrain.
Of immediate concern is resolving a dispute with developer Jack Myers, who is pursuing plans for a 432-unit condominium project adjacent to the terminal site. Construction on the Myers property began in May. Only days before the terminal's EIR was approved, San Francisco planners slapped a stop work order on Myers' project, claiming that the building permit was not valid.
The property has had building permits since 1991, but previous owners were unable to build, according to Adam Alberti, a spokesman for the JPA. Myers took control of the parcel last year. Alberti said that the landowners were informed of the situation as the EIR was underway, and the parcel was identified in the EIR as one of 23 properties necessary for the rail line project.
But Myers is not backing away from the condominium project. "We're going to get the building permits back and we're going to construct the project," said Tim Tosta, an attorney for Myers Development. "They [the entitlements] were fully vested and the building was under construction."
Several scenarios have been considered for resolving the impasse: The Board of Supervisors could reroute a train tunnel around the property; Myers could agree to a buyout of the land or a land swap; or the TJPA could acquire the property through eminent domain. A decision appeared to be close in late July.
Funding for the transbay terminal comes from more than a dozen sources, including a $1 bridge toll increase that Bay Area voters approved in March, sales tax revenue from San Francisco, and a future ticket charge on transbay commuters. Caltrans is turning over $290 million worth of land in the area that will be sold to finance the project. All but $182 million of the needed funding has been identified.
However, $475 million for the train extension depends on whether state voters approve a bond measure to build the proposed high-speed rail system. Originally slated to appear on this November's ballot, the bond measure has been delayed until 2006 or 2008. If the high-speed rail is not funded, the Caltrain extension may not get built.
Alberti, TJPA spokesman, said the train tracks can be added later if the funding is not available when construction begins. Current plans are for the project to begin in 2005, with completion by 2012.
The approval of the EIR capped a 30-year planning effort to rebuild the terminal. Past San Francisco mayors have been less than enthusiastic about the project.
As expected, though, opponents filed lawsuits challenging the EIR in mid-July. Myers filed one of the lawsuits, arguing that the study did not account for his planned residential tower. A group of architects, engineers, business owners and property owners who favor an alternate transbay terminal one block from the current site filed the other lawsuit.
The competing proposal backed by the EIR litigants could be built $1 billion to $1.5 billion cheaper than the project that has been approved, according to Jon Kaufman, executive vice president at Solem and Associates, a public affairs firm in San Francisco. The lower cost is because most of the land for the alternate project is currently used for parking lots, and because the project would use a different alignment for an underground rail line, he explained.
Kaufman also said the competing plan would not require construction of a new temporary terminal while the old one is torn down, and would allow the current terminal site to be sold for real estate development once a new terminal is in place.
"It's a huge expense," Kaufman said of the approved project. "It's much more expensive than it needs to be."
But the TJPA's Alberti said the temporary terminal will be more of a parking lot, and not much of a structure.
Tosta, Myers' attorney, likened the terminal project to gambling.
"You might as well go to Las Vegas and put your money on the table," he said.
But Alberti said the project will serve the region. "It is an expensive project," he said, adding, "It's going to cost us a lot less today than [it would] to build it tomorrow."
Adam Alberti, Transbay Joint Powers Authority, (415) 227-9700.
Jon Kaufman, Solem & Associates, (415) 788-1829.
Tim Tosta, Steefel, Levitt & Weiss (415) 403-3343.
Transbay Joint Powers Authority: http://sfgov.org/site/tjpa