Missed Connection

The multiuse Transbay Terminal project may have shrunk into a really expensive bus station

To hear AC Transit President Greg Harper tell it, Mayor Gavin Newsom and his underlings are cooking up a conspiracy to commit chicanery on the city's behalf.

"They look at it as if they can just shuck and jive their way in, and that the state will say that they can just have the land," says Harper, as he explains his theory that Newsom, his assistant Michael Cohen, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, and San Francisco County Transportation Authority Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich are together scheming to kill a proposed $4 billion train and bus station in the western shadow of the Bay Bridge, so that they can usurp a fortune's worth of state-owned real estate to benefit developers.

Harper, who serves as acting director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority responsible for building the terminal, says he plans to fight the mayor and his cronies' imagined scheme.

"I will make life hell for them when they start to stall out this project," Harper says. "Because I've got better things to do than oversee a funeral."

I believe Harper doth protest too much. I'm not convinced that the mayor, or the underlings he has charged with managing the city's end of the terminal project, are acting in a way that's quite as underhanded as Harper seems to think they are. But I can see where he's coming from. The mayor's record of managing multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, which has so far consisted of handing them off to lackeys who then make a politically influenced mess of things, inspires zero confidence.

Now that some officials close to the mayor are taking the quite reasonable step of calling for a public policy debate about an issue vital to the city's future, it's not surprising to hear people say they suspect the worst.

Perhaps, if the mayor's not too busy with photo ops, publicity stunts, and out-of-town stints burnishing his national political career, he might take this issue on himself and use his bully pulpit to convince everyone involved that it's important this project not die of bureaucratic infighting or suspicion about the mayor's own intentions.

Last month, the Transbay Terminal, an imagined Grand Central Station West rail and bus transit facility that would be the largest, perhaps most important infrastructure construction project in the United States, seemed to devolve toward becoming nothing more than a fancy bus station.

That's too bad, because the project -- in the form of the train-trolley-bus-BART connect-all facility originally envisioned -- has the potential to solve the tragedy of Bay Area transit: Currently, those wishing to get around without cars or bikes travel a hodgepodge of systems that operate at massive expense yet fail to connect with each other in an effective way.

Five years ago the city of San Francisco and the board that runs the Caltrain rail line to San Jose created an independent agency called the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. It is responsible for rebuilding the 1939 station that now houses AC Transit and Greyhound bus lines at First and Mission streets. The facility is seismically unsafe. Officials imagined that instead of just retrofitting the old structure, they could use money from the sale of land that used to support bridge offramps destroyed by the 1989 earthquake to help pay for a Manhattan-style rail and bus terminal that would connect the region's far-flung transit lines.

As things now stand, the Bay Area spends hundreds of millions of dollars on train and bus lines that don't connect to one another. So riders waste hours disembarking and reboarding multiple transit systems located blocks and miles apart. So, for many trips, jammed Bay Area automobile traffic is a real time saver, despite the existence of multiple, independent rail and bus routes that move much faster than car traffic -- until a rider has to make a crosstown connection to a new line. By joining BART, S.F. Muni, the East Bay's AC Transit bus system, and the San Jose-to-S.F. Caltrain line, a unified Transbay Terminal could save millions of person-hours of transit time.

It was a grand yet horribly expensive dream. City fathers patched together a funding scheme that included money that was supposed to flow from state funds earmarked for a bullet train that California officials envisioned connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. Recently, a massive infrastructure bond proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not include money for a bullet train, all but erasing the $475 million that might have gone toward building a downtown terminal as an endpoint for the train.

So Transbay Terminal officials had to come up with a way to make do with the $1.5 billion or so that's been patched together so far. And that's when the latest round of fighting began.

Early last month the Transbay Joint Powers Authority released a plan that would get things rolling by building a $1 billion bus station to replace the cavernous concrete AC Transit and Greyhound bus station in the shadow of the Bay Bridge's west end. The structure would be fortified so that workers could someday extract the earth under the station and install train tracks, turning the bus station into the train and bus terminal. But for the time being, at least, it would still be a bus station disconnected from rail lines just like the old one, only fancier. According to this plan, the completed bus station would be the first "phase" toward building a multisystem rail and bus hub.

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