Caltrain’s San Francisco extension costs more than it’s worth

The San Jose BART extension is proving to be quite costly, but, on a per-mile basis, it is a bargain compared to a proposed Caltrain extension in San Francisco.

The Portal, a project to extend service from the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets to the Salesforce Transit Center, is now expected to cost $8.25 billion for just 1.3 miles of additional service.

Since funding for the project is not yet secured, this is a good time to reevaluate and, ideally, shelve this project.

The project is being proposed by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, a partnership of San Francisco, the East Bay’s AC Transit, Caltrain on the Peninsula and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

It is hard to know how many Caltrain riders would use the extension since the Transbay Joint Powers Authority has not released a post-COVID ridership model. A 2009 analysis from Cambridge Systematics estimated 31,500 weekday riders, but this is now implausible given that weekday ridership throughout the entire Caltrain system averaged only 21,366 in September.

Caltrain no longer produces entrance or exit statistics by station, so we do not know how many of these riders are going all the way up to the station at Fourth and King streets. In 2019, about 47% of Caltrain trips began or ended at the San Francisco terminus. But this ratio may be lower today given the number of companies that have left or downsized in downtown San Francisco.

Extending Caltrain just 1.3 miles provides limited benefits to existing passengers and probably won’t attract many new ones. Riders alighting at Fourth and King can currently transfer to one of two different Muni metro lines that go to various downtown San Francisco locations.

While a single-seat ride to Salesforce Transit Center is undoubtedly more convenient, it would only save most riders a few minutes. This time savings is unlikely to lure many car commuters out of their personal vehicles. As a result, the costly extension would have little impact on climate change.

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority hopes to obtain federal funds to cover about half the project costs. But the Federal Transit Administration considers the quality of state and local funding commitments when choosing which projects to support.

In the case of The Portal, the transbay authority’s funding plan includes $550 million from the California High-Speed Rail Authority. But it is unclear how that agency would find these funds because it does not even have enough money to complete its initial operating segment, from Merced to Bakersfield.

The bullet train’s challenges not only threaten to undermine The Portal’s funding, but also undermine another justification for the project. Planners expect the Caltrain service to Salesforce Transit Center to be augmented by high-speed rail service from Central and Southern California. But that would require an additional tens of billions of dollars to finish the bullet train, money that has yet to materialize. And with the federal budget deficit rising against a background of higher interest rates, it is hard to see the federal government coming up with additional bullet-train funding in the next few years.

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