Thursday, December 11, 2008

Terminal Trouble by the Bay

"Location, location, location" is the first rule of real estate. It's why young, upwardly mobile professionals from around the country move to Manhattan and are willing to fork over half of their salaries to live in spaces not much larger than their closets back home.

So, if you're the head of a planned high-speed rail line in California and someone is building a facility they say will become the "Grand Central Terminal of the West," would you jump at the chance to have you trains arrive and depart from there?

Well, Quentin Kopp, who heads the California High-Speed Rail Authority, is staying put, for now. Kopp has said that the line's San Francisco terminal will be at Fourth & Townsend Streets, a location now used by Caltrain, the commuter line to San Jose and Gilroy. He's shunning a rebuilt Transbay Terminal, for which a ground-breaking ceremony was held yesterday.

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority plans to spend $1.2 billion on the first phase of a one-million square foot new facility in downtown San Francisco. But no money has been found for the $300 million train "box," a piece of infrastructure necessary for the rail terminal, which would be built in phase two.
"Transportation planners say the train box, which is essentially the shell structure in which the train station would be built during the project's second phase, is very important both logistically and financially (doing it later could be very expensive and disruptive to the station's operation), particularly since the TJPA has secured little of the $3 billion needed for phase two."
Kopp says it would be too expensive to extend the high-speed line the additional 1.4 miles through a tunnel from Fourth & Townsend. But, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, there's no love lost between him and TJPA executive director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan.

The original Transbay Terminal opened in 1939 to accommodate buses and commuter trains using the neary San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In its heyday during World War II, 26 million passengers used the facility yearly. However, after railroad tracks were removed from the bridge in 1959, usage of the terminal dropped significantly and both it and the surrounding neighborhood went into decline.

Some experts believe its downtown location is critical to the high-speed train's success. Dave Snyder, transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the Guardian:
"I don't think it works with the rail terminal at the current Caltrain station at Fourth and Townsend. The access to downtown just isn't good enough. The trains have to come downtown."
I concur, based on something I learned several years ago when an investment banking colleague who lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side was interviewed for a newspaper article about business travelers' preferences for Amtrak's Acela Express versus the air shuttle. He explained that if he was leaving from our office in Midtown, he'd opt for the train because the door-to-door trip was faster. But if he was traveling from his apartment, he'd fly because LaGuardia Airport was just a few minutes away via the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge and the Grand Central Parkway.

Business travelers not only represent the largest share of the Los Angeles - San Francisco travel market, but they are most willing to pay premium prices. They need to be catered to, and the station's proximity to their final destination will influence how they travel.

Quentin Kopp may have his issues with Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, but terminating the high-speed line on the outskirts of downtown San Francisco is shortsighted. As the Guardian notes:
"Building an adequate terminal for high-speed rail at its present location would cost at least $750 million, money that would be better spent funding the downtown extension."
Two history lessons for Mr. Kopp:
  1. Fourth & Townsend is a desirable location for people wanting to take a train to see a San Francisco Giants game, but 21st Century Los Angeles has about as many Giant fans as Brooklyn did in the 1940s and 1950s.
  2. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was able to acquire the New York Central Railroad on the cheap when he stopped trains of his New York & Hudson River Railroad across the river from Albany, NY, and made passengers fend for themselves to continue their journey.

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