Transbay Gamble

Transbay Gamble

Pelli Clarke Pelli’s transit center scheme: Gone but not forgotten.
Courtesy Transbay Joint Powers Authority

Most cities wouldn’t delay a project likely to attract jobs and money to their area during a recession. Not so San Francisco.

The city voted earlier this month to postpone the Transbay Transit Terminal, a new high-speed train and bus station in SoMa, for more than a year in hopes of winning $400 million in federal stimulus money. Their confidence is so high that they threw out their old plans and are redrawing them in time to accept possible federal funds in October.

The proposed design for the Minna Street entrance.

The Proposed Grant Hall. given the project’s redesign, it could look different come October.

“I’m a gambling man and I’m willing to roll the dice,” said Chris Daly, a city supervisor and a director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the station’s construction. By tweaking the plans, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, the city could save $100 million in excavation costs if the center’s underground high-speed train station is added to the first phase of construction, which currently includes ground-floor stores, a bus terminal and a rooftop park. The old plan called for the train station to be built after the terminal opened, but officials say it would be easier to excavate and build the train station before the rest of the center is built. The change would mean a late 2015 opening, instead of 2014, as planned.  

If San Francisco’s gamble doesn’t pay off, $15 million in design and engineering work would be wasted and the Transbay Terminal would open four months behind schedule without a train station. It’s an option that Transbay officials do not believe will happen given the terminal’s location and need. “We’re shovel ready and tailor-made for this federal money,” said Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, the authority’s executive director.

The debate over the train station’s changes has also played out against a tussle over its size. In March, engineers said the station wouldn’t be large enough to handle future traffic and would have to be rebuilt. The station’s current design includes three platforms and six tracks for Caltrain and high-speed rail. Some engineers have said it would need a minimum of eight tracks to handle future traffic, but the agency has decided to go ahead with the current design and use the Caltrain station for overflow.

Another stumbling point is the lack of rail lines. While Transbay is envisioned as a unified Caltrain and high-speed rail station, there are no tracks connecting it with the Caltrain station one mile away. The city has yet to nail down $2 billion from the federal government and other sources to make this connection.

The project carries a hefty price tag, with an estimated cost of $1.2 billion (or $1.6 billion if the train station becomes part of phase one). Although Transbay is funded by a potpourri of local, regional, state, and federal money, the city has been relying on the sale of 10 parcels in the surrounding area to help out.

The credit crunch, however, has ground the sale of the first site to a halt, and in mid-June, the city’s redevelopment agency nixed two offers as too low, deciding to put the sites on the market next year. Meanwhile, the state will send the federal government their stimulus application in July, and will wait anxiously for a verdict in the fall.