Plan to Connect NorCal by Rail Gains Steam

Planners have plans to build an epic rail network across the 'mega-region' in 20 years. Here’s how it could actually happen:

Every once in a while, and with increasing frequency since “Amtrak” Joe Biden became president, a certain fantasy transit map goes viral on social media. The Map, by Berkeley-based artist and activist Alfred Twu, depicts an imagined “United States High Speed Rail” network, with super-fast train lines criss-crossing the country like the Interstate Highway system. In a sign of the growing political cachet of trains, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg shared an article about young people’s enthusiasm for this particular map, writing in a tweet, “Gen Z is dreaming big. It’s time we all do the same.” 

It seems like planners in the Bay Area got the memo. Just a few weeks after President Biden took office, a coalition of Bay Area transit agencies and business groups, led by BART, released an epic rail transportation plan for Northern California called Link21. The idea is to connect the 21 counties of the Northern California mega-region, stretching from the Sierra foothills to Monterey Bay, with fast, frequent, and reliable rail service, over the course of the next two decades. 

Read more: An epic wishlist for NorCal public transportation.

The overall program proposes several mega-projects to close the gaps in the existing rail network, including bringing trains to San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center, building a transit corridor next to the Dumbarton Bridge, and creating a new rail service parallelling the 580 between the Tri-Valley and the Central Valley. The centerpiece of the program would be a second transbay rail crossing between Oakland and San Francisco, adding capacity to BART and potentially enabling Caltrain to travel directly from the Peninsula to the East Bay and Sacramento. An additional train tunnel under the Bay could also provide an opportunity to fulfill the wildest dreams of San Francisco transit advocates: Building subways down Geary Boulevard and 19th Avenue. 

“The advantage of a new regional rail program is that it suddenly provides direct access to the entire Bay in a way that just the BART tunnel alone does not. It allows connection between communities that have been isolated from one another in a way that has just not been really been feasible,” says Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute who specializes in mass transit projects. “There’s no way to ignore the importance of this project in the region’s future.” 

SF Weekly followed up with all the agencies involved in this behemoth program, asking for the latest information on how their projects are progressing. Their answers reveal that some pieces are moving forward a lot faster than you might assume. President Biden’s infrastructure plan, climate commitments, and general fondness for trains could grease the wheels even more. A number of looming obstacles also pose major challenges to Link21, including funding, jurisdictional turf wars, and the public’s tenuous faith in public transportation and massive government-led infrastructure projects—especially in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has made crowded train cars a terrifying prospect to many.

Below, we describe the rationale of the program, and its marquee project, the second transbay rail crossing. For a comprehensive list of the other 12 projects that are part of Link21, click here.

What Northern California’s rail network could look like in 20 years if planners get their way. (Photo: Bay Area Council)

All Aboard

Such a complex and expensive program is predicated on some very simple math. First, consider climate. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, accounting for about 40 percent of the Bay Area’s carbon footprint. Leaders in Sacramento and local governments have pledged to get those emissions to zero in the next two or three decades. 

“We have super ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reductions here in California,” says Sadie Graham, a planner at BART and acting director of Link21. “I think that it takes really big, ambitious multi-generational projects like this one to help us put a dent in achieving those goals.”

Electric cars will certainly help — but personal, two-ton hunks of metal fitted with batteries made from rare earth metals still have a far greater environmental footprint than electric trains and buses. Plus, electric cars (or self-driving cars, for that matter) can’t do anything about traffic, which is already approaching pre-pandemic levels even as many white collar workers continue to work from home. 

“It may take a few years for transit to fully recover in terms of ridership, but one thing that isn’t going to go away is traffic congestion,” says Camille Tsao, a planner at Capitol Corridor who is working on Link21. “So we cannot drive ourselves out of this problem we have, which is we still need to get around.”

Excavation equipment continues to remove material from the invert or lower area of the oval-shaped station and track crossover cavern in the Central Subway. Photo courtesy of SFMTA

Again, it’s a question of numbers. Trains can move a lot more people, in a lot less space, than freeways. During the morning rush hour, cars on the Bay Bridge transport 14,200 people per hour, while BART can handle 27,000 people per hour. Those numbers become even more relevant as the population of the Bay Area continues to grow in the coming decades: The Association of Bay Area Governments projects that 1.7 million more people will live in the region in 2040.

The Greater Bay Area already has the highest proportion of supercommuters — people commuting more than 90 minutes each way — in the country, according to a 2019 Apartment List study, adding yet another impetus for this rail program. Many of these supercommuters are low-income people of color who were priced out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. 

Even as new state laws designed to make the inner Bay Area build more housing begin to take effect, the reality is that a lot of people travel to and from far more distant areas, whether for work or pleasure. The region has “a lot of low-income people with very long commutes,” Freemark says. “I think it’s difficult to ignore that fact, when considering what projects need to be prioritized.” 

Under the Bridge

The heart and soul of the Link21 program is a second transbay rail crossing, probably for both BART and regional rail services like Caltrain and Capitol Corridor, and potentially, high speed rail. The crossing would likely need to be big enough for four tracks, as BART trains operate at a different track gauge (essentially, width) than regional rail. 

Sadie Graham and her team of planners at BART and Capitol Corridor have been working on the program for over a year, developing a business case and identifying metrics for success. Between now and 2024, Graham and her team will be doing community outreach as they begin to narrow down their specific plan. She emphasizes that the process will specifically reach out to communities that have historically been left out of urban planning decisions. 

“Large infrastructure projects like transit or highway projects have had a lot of disparate impacts on disadvantaged communities,” Graham says. “What we’re trying to do is to really understand all of the benefits and the burdens that the program can cause and then make sure that no particular group or community is left behind and doesn’t share in those benefits.” 

Currently, anybody can take the survey on the Link21 website to share their thoughts about how this project could best serve them. By 2024, planners should have a general project concept, and they hope to have the project environmentally cleared by 2028, with construction beginning in 2029. Planners aim to start service in the transbay rail crossing by 2040, although pieces of the project could open before then. 

And here’s where things get exciting for San Francisco. Eric Young, a spokesperson for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, noted that the SFCTA and the city’s planning department are “actively evaluating potential rail investments in the Geary [Boulevard] corridor and across the city” as part of the Connect SF long-range planning process. This follows a 2018 SFCTA Board vote to endorse the concept that the new “Transbay BART link should continue on to serve the west side of San Francisco. Geary is the busiest bus corridor in the city and region and a westerly alignment will have significant accessibility and environmental benefits given the many local and regional destinations along the corridor.”

A conceptual plan for new subways in San Francisco, which would be made possible by the second transbay rail crossing. (Photo: SFCTA/ Connect SF plan)

Not only is the existing BART transbay tube approaching capacity (pre-COVID), but so is the spine of the BART system on either side of the Bay. That means a second BART tunnel can’t simply connect to the existing BART lines running through San Francisco or West Oakland. “Building a crossing alone isn’t going to solve all our problems,” Tsao says. “If you have backups or bottlenecks in your current system and then you just connect them with a new crossing, you’re not actually solving anything.” As for where that line should go, others are more circumspect than Young. “We are just so not there yet,” Graham says.

None of these ideas would be revolutionary to BART planners, who have previously studied concepts including Geary Boulevard and 19th Avenue subways, as well as new service in SoMa and Mission Bay. Across the Bay, additional BART lines could serve Alameda Island and Jack London Square — perhaps near the site of the future A’s stadium. Transit advocates have also proposed removing the 980 freeway in downtown Oakland, creating space for a new BART line. That effort could get a boost from President Biden’s infrastructure plan, whose preliminary form includes $20 billion for the removal of outdated freeways that have divided neighborhoods. 

Of course, all of this is contingent upon funding. The current, very rough cost estimate for the second transbay rail crossing is about $21 billion in today’s dollars, or $29 billion in “year of completion” dollars. Graham emphasizes that they are looking at a variety of funding options, including local, state, and federal sources. Freemark thinks a multi-county tax measure is a likely path, following in the wake of Caltrain and BART’s recent successful ballot measures. The “21” in Link21 could be the operative word here — by making the case that this tunnel and associated projects would unlock huge mobility improvements across Northern California, project planners massively expand the potential tax base to fund this thing. 

‘Like the Internet’ 

Anyone who regularly drives on Bay Area roads or relies on regional bus and rail systems to get around knows that our transportation infrastructure is often overcrowded or dysfunctional. It’s a problem inextricably linked with climate change, racial inequality, and the statewide housing crisis. But there’s disagreement about how, and how quickly, it can be solved.

Freemark is disappointed by the long time horizons in the Link21 program, which envisions completing the second transbay crossing in about 20 years. Planners have little power over some aspects of this timeline, namely state and federal environmental review processes, known as CEQA and NEPA. Ironically, a growing body of scholarly research suggests that these regulations, which are designed to prevent damage to the environment, add years to the process of building infrastructure that is obviously good for the planet.

Caltrain commuter rail lines wait at the Caltrain Depot in San Francisco, Calif. on August 17, 2016. Photo by Joel Angel Juárez

Higher-than-expected construction costs and delays have also plagued some of the Bay Area’s recent transportation mega-projects, like the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge and the Central Subway in San Francisco. To build trust with the public — who will likely need to authorize the program via a ballot measure — Freemark says Link21 planners should “make an effort to reduce construction costs where at all feasible.” That could include copying best practices from other countries that have more experience building rail infrastructure, and avoiding unnecessary extras like monumental train stations. 

Another difficulty could be the region’s tangle of transit agencies and municipal jurisdictions — numbering 27 and 101, respectively, in the nine county Bay Area alone. “Ideally, a project of this sort would encourage the agencies to identify mechanisms to merge,” Freemark says. That concept could be gaining momentum with a recent proposal from the group Seamless Bay Area calling for BART and Caltrain to become a single, lead transit agency for the Bay Area. (The Capitol Corridor rail service is already housed at BART). 

The Bay Area’s notorious NIMBYism could also prove to be a problem. People may like these plans in theory, but once they start to realize the extent of the construction and development necessary to bring them to fruition, they may have second thoughts. While planning and construction practices have since evolved, anyone who was around during the construction of the BART tunnel through San Francisco will tell you that it was no walk in the park. 

Link21 doesn’t appear to have any organized opposition at this early, conceptual stage. However, there are those who argue that this level of infrastructure investment is not necessary, especially in light of the pandemic. In the libertarian magazine Reason, Marc Joffe argued that the growth in remote work, and BART’s gradually decreasing ridership even before the pandemic, renders a second transbay rail crossing unnecessary. BART is also embarking upon a modernization project that will significantly expand the capacity of the existing transbay tube by allowing trains to run closer together. 

But according to Tsao, Link21’s constituency is meant to go well beyond existing transit riders. “We want people to understand that this isn’t just about a crossing from Oakland to San Francisco that only serves BART riders going to 9-to-5 jobs,” she says. “It’s much more than that, and it has potential to be transformational.” 

So much so, Tsao says, that it could be difficult for us to wrap our heads around what this rail program could eventually mean for daily life in the Bay Area: “For people who grew up without the internet, it was hard to imagine what the world would be like with the internet.”

Benjamin Schneider is a staff writer at SF Weekly. Twitter @urbenschneider

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