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.

“It didn't make sense to spend $400 million removing dirt until they're ready. If they build it without removing the dirt, it takes two years off construction,” says Tony Bruzzone, manager of service planning for AC Transit.

Some officials see this scenario as a potential trap, however. If the government spends all available money on a bus station, with no more nod to rail service than the theoretical possibility of someday excavating the basement, the facility just might stay a bus station indefinitely. What's more, building out the rail sections of the Transbay Terminal envisions charging agencies such as AC Transit special user fees to help foot the bill. If the bus station is completed first, a bus system such as AC Transit might theoretically not see the sense in paying an extra fee to add on rail facilities, critics claim.

Some officials believe it might be smarter to use the roughly $1.5 billion available for the project to dig a tunnel from the Caltrain station near the Giants' ballpark to the bus terminal site. This cave to nowhere might help induce state and federal bureaucrats to cough up sufficient funds to lay track inside it, and eventually build a Transbay Terminal at its north end. At least that's the idea being shopped around by Moscovich, the Transportation Authority executive director. And the mayor's staffers are paying attention.

Early last month, the mayor and Supervisor McGoldrick, who serves as chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, dashed off a letter demanding a halt to discussion of a bus-terminal-only plan in order to “study” other alternatives.

Infuriated, Harper fired back a letter, joined by Newsom rival Chris Daly, who sits on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, suggesting the mayor's claim that the terminal plan needed further study was bogus. Harper recruited state Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata to send a letter urging Newsom to “work with” the Authority, calling the bus-station-first plan the “better” option.

And the next week, Bruzzone, the AC Transit official, was in my office explaining why the mayor's letter looked like a gambit that might endanger the project.

I'm not sure he's right. But I know where Bruzzone's coming from.

A lot of people retain an awful taste in their mouth from the mishandling by mayoral staffers of a land developer's successful attempt to extract a fortune from the city.

Last fall the city paid $58 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a developer who planned to build a condominium tower on property needed to build the terminal.

Critics of the settlement believe mayoral staffers sided with the developer in his dispute with the city, creating costly delays, and causing the city to pay $25 million more than necessary. The developer, Jack Myers, was fronting for a major political fundraiser named Richard Ressler, who had put up money from a fund he was managing for the CalPERS state employee retirement system, which happens to be a state Democratic power base.

Mayoral staffers “formed an alliance with Jack Myers that cost us a lot of money,” Harper says.

On Treasure Island, the mayor raised doubts about his judgment by using management of a multibillion-dollar real estate project as political exile for potential rival Tony Hall, who was then ousted when it seemed he might endanger the interests of Democratic megadonor Ron Burkle. Newsom has allowed San Francisco's federal transit-dollar lobbying chits to be used up on the Central Subway trolley tunnel, a politically motivated boondoggle with minimal people-moving effect. All the while, the mayor, his press office, and his other advisers have attempted to pass these blunders off as sound policy.

And now, the mayor's people say they're shocked, simply shocked, at the suspicion generated by their demand to halt work on the bus-terminal idea and look at building a train tunnel instead.

Michael Cohen, the mayor's point man on the Transbay project, says all he's asking for is a month of debate, followed by consensus on a particular plan.

“We need to have an old-fashioned policy debate. As things are now, federal and state funding sources say, 'You have your houses divided,'” Cohen says.

To me, that statement makes sense. It may very well be true that it's wiser to use limited money to build a train tunnel instead of a bus station, if your ultimate objective is to connect buses to trains.

But in order to have this discussion, it's necessary for the mayor to step forward and take a lead in convincing people that he and his staffers aren't up to their usual cynical tricks.

The mayor's going to have to somehow overcome the fact that it's hard to believe a dissembler, even when he's telling the truth.

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