Bay Area buildup

Written by Douglas John Bowen

Big cities can tout big projects. San Francisco keeps expanding its rail reach and effectiveness in big-city fashion out of proportion to its actual size.

San Francisco has a status, a recognition factor, of “big city” that’s far larger than one might expect for a city of its size—and that certainly extends to its experience with passenger rail transit.

Cities across the North American continent scramble to replace the rail transit they tore out decades ago, or repair and upgrade what they barely held onto, or boldly start from scratch with a mile or two of new project. The residents of San Francisco can bask in the comfort of knowing what they already have—even as their city and surrounding neighbors, too, add to the passenger rail network.

The Bay Area is perhaps the best urban rail transit smorgasbord in North America, sporting regional (“commuter”) rail, heavy rail rapid transit (BART), light rail transit and streetcar operations (MUNI), and, of course, the venerable cable cars that cater not just to tourists but to everyday city denizens on the move.

All told, at least $2.6 billion in capital expansion projects are under way for a focal-point city of roughly just 813,000—far smaller than the 3.2 million of Los Angeles or the 8.2 million of New York (all 2011 Census Bureau estimates)—making San Francisco’s expansion efforts that much more the impressive per capita. Then, too, San Francisco is a focal point of the Bay Area, and per BART and Caltrain operations, serves as a nexus for at least 7.2 million people in the Bay Area reliant on solid rail transport.

BART keeps building up

It’s hard for some to believe that BART is now more than 40 years old. Along with Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail (1976), BART was a notable exception to rail’s ongoing retreat during the 1970s, starting up revenue operation in September 1972 when the U.S. was wrapping up wholesale dismantlement of rail transit nationwide. Though BART didn’t begin service in San Francisco proper until the next year, and though its headquarters are in neighboring Oakland, Calif., BART’s role in San Francisco has never been more critical, even if (or especially as) the system continues to expand beyond its current four-county territory south to San Jose. A BART study notes 10% of its morning ridership are San Francisco residents heading for work elsewhere in the Bay Area—movement other cities might term “reverse commuting.”

BART’s biggest move so far is southeast of San Francisco, with an $890 million, 5.4-mile extension of the Fremont Line to Warm Springs, Calif., now under construction. Completion of this segment is expected next year; the extension itself presaging access to Milpitas, Berryessa, and San Jose, with an additional 10 miles of right-of-way also under construction.

Cubic Transportation Systems will activate the fare collection system on the extension and integrate it into the regionally interoperable Clipper® Card payment system.

Local demographers, planners, and pundits already note the increase of tech workers going to work in Silicon Valley—but going home to digs in San Francisco proper, with eight BART stations in the city itself.

Indeed, BART’s future expansion focus may be more tightly aligned with central city planning. Plans are afloat for a four-tunnel crossing under San Francisco Bay parallel to existing BART right-of-way to serve San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Terminal. BART would occupy two tunnels, while Caltrain and the state’s planned high speed rail system—and, possibly, Amtrak—would utilize two others. Foundation work for the new Transbay Transit Center, located on Mission Street, is under way. BART officials and pro-rail advocates argue that such a plan strengthens the system’s core, where ridership and population density is strongest.

Also on tap, though not in San Francisco itself: an extension of BART’s yellow line northeast of San Francisco, further east from Pittsburg/Bay Point.

BART’s consolidated budget of $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2014, which began July 1, also includes $46 million for new rail rolling stock. Bombardier Transportation currently is supplying 410 new rapid transit cars. And BART’s $1.3 billion Earthquake Safety Program will be completed in 2017.

Caltrain electrifies

The estimated $685 million Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project, upgrading Caltrain’s existing rail service between Tamien, Calif., and San Francisco, is part of the state’s “blended” approach to advancing high speed rail throughout the state and to San Francisco itself, one of two northern termini envisioned by planners. Caltrain electrification is one of only two such ongoing projects for regional passenger rail west of the Mississippi River, sharing the honors with Denver Regional Transportation District’s Eagle P3 regional rail project work.

Indeed, Denver RTD staff has offered input into the Caltrain effort “on a range of project delivery methods that were considered for the PCEP,” according to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain service. Last month the Joint Powers Board authorized a design-build contract approach for the electrification project, including the purchase of 96 electric multiple-unit (EMU) railcars.

Construction, including right-of-way upgrades along Caltrain’s full 77 miles, is under way in preparation for 51 miles of electrified rail service from San Francisco to Tamien, Calif., beginning in 2019. Diesel service would cover the remaining stretch of line between Tamien and Gilroy until a second phase of electrification, not yet funded, is advanced.

More immediately resonant with San Francisco residents is the 1.3-mile tunnel planned to extend Caltrain from its current city terminus, at 4th and King streets, to the new Transbay Transit Center, closer to San Francisco’s central business district. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has made funding the $2.5 billion extension a high priority.

Caltrain last month also announced initial work on its Communications Based Overlay Signal System (CBOSS) Positive Train Control (PTC) Project, designed to comply with federal requirements for PTC, as well as aid in electrification and modernization efforts. “The CBOSS PTC system equips the corridor with federally mandated safety technology and increases system capacity, which will help accommodate future increases in services and make it possible for Caltrain to respond to skyrocketing ridership demands,” Caltrain said.

MUNI LRT, streetcars power modal mix

San Francisco’s cable cars continue yeoman performance for city dwellers daily even as tourists marvel. Overlooked by visitors all too often are the roles of San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) rail services, posing as light rail transit (LRT) on some routes, streetcar operations on other segments, with a novel mix of brand-new and rehabilitated rolling stock destined for expanded service.

Buses and trolleybuses add to the varied public transit mix.

Charges of lax or obsolete labor rules, coupled with concerns of rundown infrastructure, have dogged MUNI for decades. But even some of MUNI’s harshest critics aren’t automatically opposed to expanding its operations to meet San Francisco’s expected growth, with some noting that San Francisco streetcar/LRT operations are one of the “seven sisters” (or “seven survivors”) in the U.S. that escaped wholesale dismantlement in the post World War II years.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, overseeing MUNI, auto parking, traffic, and taxicab operations, appears eager to build upon that legacy. New LRT gear is slated to serve the $1.4 billion Central Subway line, extending LRT 1.7 miles, including 1.3 miles underground, north to Stockton and Clay streets under 4th Street, with connections to the prime Market Street MUNI (and BART) spine in the city. The project, considered an extension of the T Line, was reinforced with $942.2 million in Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds in October 2012; service is anticipated to begin in 2018. An additional extension north to North Beach and possibly the famed Fisherman’s Wharf is being considered, but is not funded.

Streetcars, including rehabilitated historic rolling stock and including Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) cars rescued by Brookville Equipment Corp., already are a solid presence along San Francisco’s waterfront, and that presence is slated to grow. An E Embarcadero streetcar line is slated to link Fisherman’s Wharf and the current Caltrain terminus, and eventually the Transbay Transit Center. The route currently exists, with portions used by the F, T, and N lines; the stub-end layout at the Caltrain terminus mandates use of double-ended streetcars.

More ambitious is a plan to extend MUNI’s F Line west a modest 0.85 miles from the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood through a tunnel once used by the San Francisco Belt Railroad to Fort Mason, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service endorsed the proposal last March. Though the Park Service is considered the lead agency, and is expected to deal with numerous matters within federal lands affected, a footnote in the Record of Decision states, “SFMTA will retain full decision authority on system design.”

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