Crossing the Bay Again — But Not Necessarily with BART
A Geary Boulevard heavy rail line could dramatically improve transportation in San Francisco. Yet connecting it to the regional network wouldn’t require using — and perhaps shouldn’t use — BART technology.
The dream for a Geary Boulevard rail line connecting downtown San Francisco to the Richmond neighborhood to its west has been around for decades — at least since 1961 when a proposal for a line to Marin County was being considered. In the early 1970s, it appeared that the project could be complete by 1980 and serve as the first extension of what was then the new BART rapid transit system; another study in 1974 indicated the possibility of extending the light rail Muni Metro along the street. Yet it was not to be.
As the Bay Area plans for its future growth, the project may well be worth reconsidering. Building it in coordination with a new Transbay Tube for California High-Speed trains could save costs and make the proposal a reality.
As costs rose over the years, the possibility for a full-scale Bay Area rapid transit system, especially one focusing on serving San Francisco’s urban core, fell apart. In recent years, the city has invested considerable sums in the creation of the new light rail Muni Metro line along Third Street to underserved Bayview and will soon begin building an extension into Chinatown called the Central Subway; Marin and Somona Counties are planning a new DMU commuter line that will connect to a ferry, having abandoned expensive plans for a direct rail connection into the region’s core; meanwhile, the South Bay is planning to spent billions of dollars on an expansion of BART to San Jose.
In the meantime, San Francisco’s Richmond community has been generally ignored, despite the fact that buses running along Geary Boulevard through the center of the neighborhood carry more than 100,000 daily commuters, making them some of the heaviest-used in North America. Development along the corridor is pretty dense, and there are plenty of land plots ready for redevelopment. The city is planning a relatively cheap bus rapid transit program on the street, but that line won’t do much to speed up the travel of the area’s hundreds of thousands of commuters nor will it connect them directly with other destinations in the greater Bay Area. To put it simply, Geary Boulevard demands a subway rapid transit line linked to the regional network.
In fact, planners have been bringing up the plans for years, usually as an extension of a new BART line running in a second Transbay Tube. The existing BART line between San Francisco and Oakland is operating at capacity, meaning that the Geary corridor simply couldn’t act as a spur from the Market Street main line. But the need to build a new downtown San Francisco line provides a new opportunity to connect the planned Transbay Transit Center to the Bay Area’s transit system and it opens the possibility of running high-speed and commuter trains from San Francisco to Oakland in a shared tunnel. Coordinating the Transbay Center, a Geary Subway, and the new Transbay Tube would produce a program of regional interest and save costs in the long term by merging several construction projects in one.
Using BART technology along the line would require building a four-track tube under the San Francisco Bay: BART trains run on track with a wider gauge than that planned for California High-Speed Rail and used by Caltrain; they also use a third rail power source, versus the overhead catenary planned for the other trains.
Though any new Transbay Tube — which would have to be more than three miles long — would cost billions of dollars, requiring that it be four-tracked would raise the price exponentially, making it all the more unlikely to be built. But there’s a solution: the new Geary line doesn’t have to use existing BART technology and instead could use off-the-rack traditional trains compatible with the high-speed trains. This would allow transit planners to build just two new tracks under the Bay and improve cost efficiencies by ensuring a full-capacity use of the new line. Rapid transit trains using the same tracks as high-speed and Caltrain trainsets could provide just as high of a frequency, reliability, and speed as BART.
A 5.85-mile route under Geary Boulevard, running to 33rd Avenue in Outer Richmond, might include 8 stations, including one at Transbay. Though some previous proposals had indicated the possibility of running the line partially along an elevated structure, the line would have to be built in a subway for the sake of satisfying neighborhood concerns. Fortunately, modern automated boring machines have cheapened the cost and reduced the environmental side-effects of tunneling.
Integrated into the Downtown Extension project, which will bring Caltrain (and high-speed rail) from its existing terminus and 4th and King Streets to the new Transbay Center, the new Geary Line would have a direct link to regional connections. At a new station near Union Square, the corridor could offer connections to BART’s Powell or Montgomery Stations; similarly, it would have a direct link there with the Central Subway and T-Third Street Muni Metro Service.
Once the new Geary Line crosses the Bay, a new station at Alameda Point would connect with a huge redevelopment zone on the site of a former naval base. Then, running north in a new 4.45-mile tunnel under Oakland’s Cypress Street, the line could connect directly to BART at West Oakland, where massive neighborhood reconstruction is a possibility. Though West Oakland is relatively low density, the surrounding industrial zones are likely to be replaced by housing during the next few decades, requiring better public transportation.
Caltrain trains would be diverted 1.6 miles east along the existing rail line to Oakland’s Jack London Station, where they would terminate and offer connections to Amtrak trains. High-speed trains could continue running north and south along the East Bay, using the existing Amtrak corridor.
To save costs, the new Geary line, existing the new Oakland tunnel, would connect to the existing Capitol Corridor rail line used by Amtrak and run 4.75 miles along the west side of Emeryville and Berkeley, finally reconnecting to BART at El Cerrito Plaza via a 0.8-mile tunnel under Albany Hill Park. The service could also be continued north for 3.75 miles to Richmond, again along the existing Capitol Corridor, where another BART link-up is possible. The areas reached by this line are about a mile and a half from existing BART stations and are of moderate, though increasing, density. The new line would open up a large new area of the region to direct access to the San Francisco core, increasing transit ridership and encouraging development.
There are several drawbacks to this expensive proposal: one of the purposes of a new Transbay Tube would be to reinforce the existing one and serve as a temporary replacement in case of failure or maintenance. By eliminating BART trains from the tunnel, that possibility is limited, though an easy transfer at West Oakland could work almost as well. Meanwhile, the lack of interconnectivity with BART means a required switch of lines for travelers trying to use the new Geary line.
One could also make the argument that the most suitable areas in Oakland for new transit are further inland — but building there, versus along an existing rail line ringing the Bay, would cost much more. It would be possible to extend the Geary Line in phases, however, with future connections throughout Oakland, serving as something as a parallel network to BART. Similarly, if the new Transbay Tube proves too expensive in the medium-term, the Geary Line could simply terminate at the Transbay Center along with high-speed and Caltrain services (though that would require a much larger structure than currently planned).
The overall benefits of running the Geary line as a catenary-based conventional rail system would save the region billions of dollars over a BART-based alternative: The new Transbay Tunnel could be two-tracked, rather than have four tracks; Geary line trains could use the existing rail corridors in the East Bay without requiring the complete reconstruction of the corridor; and the expense of the Transbay Center would be reduced as high-speed, regional, and local trains could share tracks.
An exciting possibility. Now where are the funds?