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SF’s proposed downtown railway extension is an unnecessary boondoggle

Illustration by Mia Carson

By Marc Joffe

Marc Joffe is a Senior Policy Analyst at Reason Foundation.

With the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit lanes in operation and the long-delayed Central Subway nearing completion, San Francisco transit planners and advocates are looking forward to commencing a much more expensive project.

The 1.3-mile Downtown Rail Extension (DTX) would allow commuter rail users from the Peninsula, and (ultimately) intercity high-speed rail lines, to access San Francisco’s financial district without changing trains or taking a long walk. But with an estimated price tag of between $4.4 billion and $5 billion, a light rail subway line connecting Caltrain’s San Francisco station (at Fourth and King streets) with the Salesforce Transit Center may be an extravagance ill-suited to post-Covid realities. 

In exchange for a large capital expenditure, a lengthy construction phase and an uncertain opening date, DTX would bring only limited benefits to San Francisco and Peninsula residents. Today, Peninsula commuters can complete their trips downtown by walking the last mile or transferring to Muni Metro service at King Street. The Muni Metro light rail line takes passengers to Mission Street and the Embarcadero, a few blocks from the Salesforce Transit Center, and to Market Street, where a transfer to BART is available. When Central Subway service begins, commuters arriving at Caltrain Station will also have quick access to Union Square and Chinatown.

If everything goes well, DTX will break ground in 2025 and have taken seven years to complete. But everything might not go so well—as illustrated by recent experience with the Central Subway light rail line, an extension whose length is similar to that of DTX. Construction on the Central Subway began in 2012. It was originally expected to cost $1.5 billion and take six years to complete, but a decade and $1.9 billion later, it is not clear when service on the new tracks will commence. In the early years of the project, area residents, workers and business owners had to deal with numerous street and sidewalk closures. Similarly, DTX construction could result in multi-year disruptions in SoMa along Townsend and Second streets.

Admittedly, train trips requiring transfers are less convenient than one-seat rides, and this inconvenience can persuade some commuters to remain in their automobiles rather than use transit. But these inconveniences can be ameliorated in a variety of ways that cost a small fraction of DTX’s price tag. For example, Caltrain and Muni could partner to provide timed transfers between their respective services. To make the transfers more appealing, one of the agencies could construct a roof and/or an overpass over King Street to protect transferring passengers from the elements and/or vehicular traffic.

It also may be feasible to link Caltrain and Muni tracks to provide passengers commuting to downtown destinations with a single-seat ride. The two systems use the same, industry-standard track gauge. But Caltrain and Muni rolling stock have different electrical requirements and platform heights.

Some European cities have addressed these incompatibilities between commuter rail and light rail by purchasing dual-mode rolling stock known as “tram-trains.” The idea of running customized Muni Metro cars on Caltrain track was first suggested on StreetsBlog in 2017, and several cities in Europe have already built such dual-mode systems.

Although there are multiple examples of tram-train service to guide planners in San Francisco, only one system has been implemented in the United States. This alternative would have to be carefully studied before being tried in the Bay Area. Planners might also consider other options, such as offering timed transfers to vans serving various points downtown. By 2032, it may be possible for such vans to be both electric and autonomous.

Ridership will also be a question mark for DTX, a tram-train or any other alternative linking Caltrain Station to San Francisco’s Downtown core. The last time a ridership study was presented to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board was in 2009 when a transportation consulting firm projected that 31,500 rail passengers would alight at the Salesforce Transit Center in 2030. This firm’s modeling work on the California high-speed rail project has faced sharp criticism from University of California Irvine economist David Brownstone, who told the Los Angeles Times that the group’s forecasting “mistakes were obvious and crude,” resulting in high-speed rail ridership forecasts being lowered from 90 million to 25 million.

Also, a lot has obviously changed since 2009, including the continued rise of San Francisco as a tech hub through the early part of the century, the relocation of some employers to less costly parts of the country, and the remote work boom in part triggered by COVID-19. Between 2007 and 2017, average weekday passenger boardings at San Francisco’s Caltrain station doubled to 15,220. But boardings declined slightly in both 2018 and 2019 before cratering during the pandemic. Although recent boardings by station are not available, Federal Transit Administration data shows a decline in overall Caltrain ridership of 83% between January 2020 and January 2022, which was expected due to the pandemic and related shutdown policies. As more employers reopen this year, much of that ridership decline will be reversed, but few are predicting a return to anything close to pre-pandemic levels in the coming years.

Before committing to building a new subway tunnel in SoMa and dealing with the costs and disruption, policymakers should have up-to-date, reality-based ridership projections. Without those figures, it is impossible to know whether the planned investment in DTX pencils out from a cost/benefit perspective. 

While project supporters can reasonably point out that most of the funding for DTX will come from the federal government, Bay Area residents are also federal taxpayers and, in that capacity, should expect value for their money. Further, TJPA pis responsible for DTX plans to supplement federal funds with sales tax revenues from local residents, tolls paid by drivers on Bay Area bridges, and special property tax levies on buildings adjacent to the Salesforce Transit Center.Given that TJPA’s first project—the transit center—came in 50% over budget, taxpayers should not allow debate about whether DTX is built to be limited to board members, transit policy insiders, and the contractors who would dig the tunnel. San Franciscans and peninsula residents should also make their voices heard.

Read a counterpoint to this Perspective by Livable City executive director Tom Radulovich: The Best Time to Build the Downtown Extension Was Decades Ago. The Second-Best Time Is Now

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