Too Big To Fail
The last time the costs of the Phase 2 project were tallied in 2016, the total came to $3.9 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars assuming a 2025 opening. Due to delays, we can anticipate at least another five years of escalation at 5%, bringing us to $5 billion before any changes to the project scope. One can reasonably expect that Bay Area transit agencies' proven inability to deliver mega-projects on budget or on time is quite likely to blow up costs well beyond these figures. As a recent example, the Phase 1 project, completed in 2019, cost $2.4 billion (year-of-expenditure) or about 50% more than the $1.6 billion YOE budget of May 2010, adopted after the train box scope was added.
The DTX project's regional, state and national significance is certainly not lost on our Transportation Industrial Complex. To improve the chances of getting the Phase 2 project federally funded (after which any cost growth becomes easier to fund, following former SF mayor Willie Brown's "theory of holes"), the TJPA is undertaking a phasing study to make the project appear more thrifty. The various approaches include deferring or deleting components of the project, such as a pedestrian connector to BART, an intercity bus facility, and an extension of the basement train box. This nibbling around the edges amounts to $0.4 billion in 2027 dollars or about 8% of the total Phase 2 project cost, a drop in the bucket.
A $30 million project development study is now in the pipeline to get Phase 2 to the state of readiness required to apply for federal New Starts funding by August 2023.
PAX: The World's Most Expensive Grade Separation
If you thought the cost of grade separations is exploding, you really haven't seen anything yet: meet the Pennsylvania Avenue Extension (PAX) addendum to the DTX, a grade separation project that will approach $2 billion for two crossings, reaching the stratospheric cost of $1 billion per crossing.
Even after spending $5 billion (before inevitable cost overruns), the DTX project will leave two existing street crossings at grade, at Mission Bay Drive and 16th Street. Not to be outdone, the city and county of San Francisco has performed a methodical series of planning studies to conclude that a new grade separation project is needed. Rather than taking on the challenge of bending some design rules to keep it simple and make it fit, the favored paint-by-numbers engineering solution is a bored tunnel, which averts any conflict with a planned 27-foot sewer pipe and the sacrosanct pile foundations of the I-280 viaduct, each of which are under the jurisdiction of other agencies. The combined cost of DTX + PAX is estimated at $6.0 billion. Take away the latest (2016) $3.9 billion cost estimate of DTX and you get about $2 billion added for PAX.
Link21 Crashes the Party
Meanwhile, BART is in the early planning stages for beefing up its throughput capacity between the greater East Bay and San Francisco, with a second Transbay Tube. It's worth pausing for a moment to consider what an astonishing piece of infrastructure the first Transbay Tube already is: it carries almost twice as many people during rush hour as the entire ten-lane freeway that is the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge, and at significantly faster speeds. Looking past the pandemic, long-term growth trends indicate that the region must plan for a second Transbay Tube.
Transbay Tube II is the centerpiece of an enormous regional rail program known as Link21, the scale and ambition of which dwarf the DTX. While there are many decisions yet to be made about the implementation details of Link21, perhaps the most critical decision centers on what technology to put in the tube: wide-gauge BART, standard-gauge regional rail, or both.
This question is already of great concern to TJPA, which writes in its August 20, 2021 Phasing Study:
BART and Capitol Corridor’s Link21 program is currently in the early stages of development and has not yet determined a preferred alignment, technology, or rail gauge options to meet their goals and objectives for a future transbay rail crossing. As expected at this stage of development, all options remain available for consideration. For example, Link21 may determine that a second transbay crossing best meets stakeholder needs if it provides additional capacity for the BART network only and does not provide a standard gauge rail crossing of the Bay. BART’s infrastructure and trainset design, however, are incompatible with Caltrain and CHSRA standards. Most significantly, BART operates on a wider track gauge with vehicles that may not meet collision requirements, and therefore a BART-only connection would not relieve congestion and conflicts on the DTX.
We can already see a problematic mindset emerging here, where "BART" is automatically conflated with "five-foot-six track gauge," setting up a false dichotomy of BART-or-standard-gauge.
Caltrain + BART: a Necessary Merger
Removing this false dichotomy is becoming a primary
reason for merging Caltrain with BART to form a single Bay Area Rapid
Transit system, although there are many other reasons.
BART does not have to be synonymous with wide gauge; indeed, BART
already operates a seamless standard-gauge extension between Pittsburg
and Antioch, and provides day-to-day management of the standard-gauge
Capitol Corridor. A new BART peninsula line, while indistinguishable
from Caltrain's service vision, would suck the air out of the emerging
pointless debate around the track gauge of the second BART transbay
crossing. The Measure RR sales tax can serve as a dowry to integrate San
Mateo and Santa Clara counties into a restructured BART district.
Transbay Through Running
A stub-end terminal station suffers from fundamental throughput limits related to long turn times and the unavoidable crossing streams of inbound and outbound traffic in the station approach or "throat." For a given number of platform tracks, a through-running station configuration where all trains that come in one end of the station can exit the other end will always provide more throughput capacity, whether measured in trains per hour or passengers per hour. Trains don't have to dwell any longer than necessary at a platform, and don't foul opposing traffic on their way in or out.
With the DTX as it is, past operational analysis indicated that just 12 inbound and outbound trains per hour (8 Caltrain + 4 HSR) would push the limits of the terminus design, with near-saturated platform occupancy. If you uncork the other end of the train box (by having Caltrans clear some right of way i.e. dismantle and redevelop a couple of medium-rise buildings to the East) so that the DTX can connect directly to a new transbay crossing, everything changes. A lot of new capacity is created by virtue of not having to layover or turn trains right smack where your platforms and track real estate is the most expensive.
A recent through running operations analysis commissioned by the TJPA shows that the Salesforce Transit Center could handle up to 20 trains per hour per direction if no more than six of them turn at the station. Any more than six turning movements, and the excessively long platform re-occupancy times (as the study notes, due to the poor layout of the switches leading to tracks 1-4) will reduce throughput capacity to less than 20 trains/hour.
Broken Assumptions at Link21
We have received briefings on the operational modeling for DTX and it would seem that even a three-bay DTX tunnel poses operational constraints. A robust service level through the transbay crossing is required to justify investment into Link21. Link21 is envisioning scenarios where not all trains that cross the Bay would continue to San Jose. At this point, there is no other location to turn trains around in the northern peninsula which makes flexibility in DTX important to the Link21 Program.
You read that right: the Link21 team is thinking of turning Capitol Corridor trains at the Salesforce Transit Center, a completely American idea (copied straight from Penn Station New York) that is operationally insane if you think about it for even a minute. In a through-running configuration, all trains that cross the Bay should stop in downtown San Francisco and get out immediately. The California High Speed Rail Authority is planning a huge yard in Brisbane, a perfect place to clean, service and layover Capitol Corridor trains. These deadhead (non-revenue) moves are much less wasteful of infrastructure capacity than treating a through-running station as a terminal.
As was remarked in previous discussions regarding San Jose, the act of parking or laying over trains at a station platform is the railroad
equivalent of parking an empty truck in the middle of a bustling loading
zone, and then concluding that the loading zone fails to function
adequately. Just stop it, don't even think of turning trains here!
The Bottom Line
Here are the pros and cons of merging DTX with Link21:
|Eliminates silly idea of a multi-gauge transbay tube project
| Could further delay DTX, since Link21 is at an earlier stage of development
| Increases SFC throughput capacity and bang-for-buck, making the enormous cost of DTX worth it
| Exposes DTX to political re-prioritization
| Provides faster Peninsula - East Bay connections than existing BART, and finally "Rings the Bay with BART"
| Greatly reduces scope and profits for Transportation Industrial Complex
| Makes more efficient use of taxpayer dollars by building one project and building it right
| Requires inter-agency coordination and mergers, which agencies abhor
|Provides seamless regional rail connection from SJ and SF to Sacramento, if Capitol Corridor is electrified
Despite the obvious political and organizational obstacles, from the point of view of a rider and taxpayer, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. The answer is then obvious: the DTX should go down the tubes of a new standard gauge Link21 crossing, with Stadler bi-level EMUs operated by BART seamlessly connecting the peninsula corridor (a.k.a. the new BART Purple Line) directly to Oakland and points beyond. DTX should be built without delay and form the first building block of Link21.