City Eyes Dismantling Interstate-280

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One of the possible train routes to the under-construction Transbay Transit Center, located at First and Mission streets, being studied by the San Francisco Planning Department would include dismantling the last 1.2 miles of Interstate-280, from Mariposa Street north. However, judging from skepticism exhibited during public presentations earlier this year, the I-280 takedown proposal may not be popular with Potrero Hill residents.

An underground connection from the Fourth and King Caltrain station to the new transit center has already been approved.  However, municipal planners see the concurrence of the transit center, planned electrification of Caltrain, and high-speed rail as an opportunity for more ambitious projects. During a presentation at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House earlier this year, the Planning Department’s director of citywide planning, Gil Kelley, stated that given that infrastructure investments made now could last for the next 100 years, it behooves the City to study an array of options.

The new proposals call for moving train tracks underground as far south as Cesar Chavez Street, rerouting them under Pennsylvania or Third Streets. That approach would open up the possibility of reconnecting the street grid. Currently, the only thru streets crossing I-280 after Mariposa are 16th and Mission Bay Drive. “It’s an opportunity to knit the fabric together,” said Kelley, who unveiled a plan to replace the highway with a boulevard. “There has been a new neighborhood rising up that was not here when 280 was built.”

However, Hill residents are concerned that traffic from a boulevard could bleed into the neighborhood, none more vocal than former mayor Art Agnos, who believes the idea a nonstarter. Three years ago, the Connecticut Street resident demonstrated his clout by successfully defeating a proposed luxury condominium development at 8 Washington Street.

“No one is more anti-freeway than me,” he said, pointing out that as mayor he oversaw removal of the Embarcadero and Central Freeways. “I hate freeways, but the I-280 extension is extremely vital to the movement of cars into the City and into Mission Bay.”

With the Giants ballpark and burgeoning Mission Bay, Agnos said the area is a traffic hotspot, which will only get worse with development of the Warriors Arena and Pier 70. “It is clear we are going to have thousands of cars coming into the area by day and night, as well as those using it as a flyover,” he explained.

The traffic implications of tearing down I-280 haven’t been examined.  Instead, City officials are prompted by a desire to remake an area that’s unappealing visually and hostile to pedestrians. “If plans go through [to move the tracks], we would have to trench 16th Street and that’s a hostile trench there,” said Gillian Gillett, transportation liaison for the mayor’s office.  Gillett likened the area to the underpass at Cesar Chavez and Highway 101, which she lives near, describing it as urban blight planners generally try to avoid.

A larger portion of the tracks could be undergrounded without taking down I-280. An initial proposal to tunnel under the existing tracks, which would’ve required the interstate to be dismantled, was deemed infeasible. However, Gina Simi, the Planning Department’s communications manager, explained in an email to the View that, “the columns of I-280 in some locations pose difficulties to reconnecting certain streets.”  A preliminary plan identifies four streets north of Mariposa that could be reconnected without removing the interstate. The amount of grade separation needed in each instance hasn’t been studied.

While Agnos believes that moving the trains underground is a sound idea, he scoffs at linking the streets. “The streets don’t connect to anything,” he said, pointing-out that some stop at Potrero Hill and others fail to go much further west, where they’re blocked by Highway 101.

“That is a distraction from the real objective here, which is an attempt to create land for the mayor’s contributors and friends. We are going to stop it,” he promised.

The idea of dismantling I-280 began circulating more than three years ago in a memorandum written by Gillett to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. At the time, the mayor’s spokesperson, Christine Falvey, cited development of a new neighborhood as a side benefit that could be a “big boon to the City.”

Moving the train tracks would also allow the Fourth and King railyard to be relocated, opening up 20 acres of land. Caltrain requires the railyard to be 10 minutes away from the transit center for storage needs, which could place it as far as South San Francisco.

Studying I-280 dismantlement and determining how to extend the tracks will be considered in the second phase of the Transbay Transit Center project.  The first phase consists of constructing the terminal itself, which is due to be completed in late 2017. Within a year planners intend to make recommendations as to which of the track extension alternatives, including the I-280 takedown, should go forward.

Under the Pennsylvania Avenue plan, trains would continue underground after the existing tunnel at 23rd street, with the 22nd street station reconstructed. The other alternative – running under Third Street – would allow a station to be built serving Mission Bay. Exactly where the trains would shift to move under Third Street hasn’t been determined; planners are studying three possible places between Cesar Chavez Street and the second tunnel heading north.

Planners also are looking at building additional tracks east of the Transbay Transit Center to create a loop, which would enable trains to unload and move on, avoiding having to sit on the platform for terminal activities, such as cleaning and restocking.

No funding or even cost estimates have been developed for Phase II options, though moving the tracks from Fourth and King alone is believed to run $4 billion.  Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a $260 million bailout for the terminal itself, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion. There have been other development snafus as well, such as the terminal not being long enough for high-speed rail trains to fit inside; trains could stick out as far as another city block.

In addition, Caltrain is $433 million short for its $1.7 billion electrification project, which is supposed to be completed by 2020. Electric tracks allow trains to start and stop faster than diesel-powered engines, thereby increasing the number of train cars that can be in service.