Preview D (Chapters 4, 5 & 6): California’s Struggling Stations And Their First Class Solutions


Despite being the city with the most innovative transportation alternatives in the nation’s most innovative state, San Francisco failed to tunnel train service downtown because, in the Big Picture, transit still suffers under laws that restrict it to second class.

This failure should tell every big city mayor nationwide that grandiose gateway plans must be proposed within a campaign for new laws that aim to rebalance regional transportation. Station upgrades can happen if supported by a political logic that runs like this: trains stimulate alternative networks that redevelop communities around transit so road congestion is reduced and so those taxpayers who must save money… can.

Related, SF’s failure results from over-reach. New central stations are too complex for mere powers of a municipality or joint powers board, no matter how competently they performed. Our transportation policy is rigged against SF’s Transbay Center having trains. Yet, it really is only a failure if we do not learn what no-trains-downtown teaches.

The learning spreads. If trains get equal status under law, SF solutions can be adapted so plans for LA and San Jose stations also progress faster… but only if solutions use the force of California law. When pressed, California has devolved some transportation authority to metros. Accelerating that process is simpler than we think; if we use for regional advantage the state’s mid-term fiscal weakness. With demonstrated benefits, SF’s central station is the prototype to guide sub-centers down the Caltrain Corridor all the way to San Jose.

That prototype gets accepted quicker if municipalities transcend their instinct to protect home rule from county and state-controlled regional agencies. And transcendence happens quicker if California makes governance of each metro’s transportation directly accountable to the property-owners and commuters who most benefit. Timid mayors cannot resist solutions. And California cannot stop the will of its three largest metros; all of whom have well-intentioned — and long-ignored — plans for evolving each’s regional transportation.

Such a Big Picture strategy only works if each station’s precise analysis gives California good reason for letting go faster of its authority and devolving it intelligently to metros. To start that process, immediately below is the high concept for each chapter. And below that, each is followed by their respective preview of 762, 562 and 530 words.

4) Transbay Center 2018: The Watershed Moment Regionalists Have Been Waiting For

5) Caltrain’s Corridor Commission: How To Stretch First Class Solutions All The Way To San Jose

6) LA Union Station: The Edifice Complex Makes Only A Little More Than A Make-over

These three chapters have been drafted (two are quite long); but need editing and peer review. Hopefully, all comes together to be posted by Summer 2018.


SF Transbay

4) San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center As A Transportation Watershed: Avoid The Pitfalls Of Value Capture (VC) by Making It Work Alongside People Power

As America’s foremost mid-sized transit metropolis, San Francisco already uses some “WST” innovations proposed for start-ups such as The Twin Cities or Denver. While SF will benefit from more advanced doses of some innovations, the proposal for SF is more transformative. It is even more likely; because California is, optimistically, mid-way in decentralizing its transportation authority. A good strategy pushes this further.

California role reduction explains the power of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s MPO,  relative to other MPOs nationwide. The MTC can influence — and often control — most transit funding and bridge tolling. (The latter is an advantage similar to America’s greatest transit user, Manhattan.)

This does not mean the Bay Area’s authority is organized properly. If authority was coherent, it may have been possible to combine two politically separate sub-regions into the TTC. (They are primarily East Bay buses and trains from Silicon Valley.)

For background, the TTC is featured in the “WST” Quiz #6 and its 600 word Answer is at the end of this page. The Answer indicates how TTC problems and cost-overruns are ultimately an argument for the Bay Area gathering more authority to control its destiny. In addition to serving California’s metros, the Bay Area lesson equally important can be adapted to Philly and multi-metro states such as Texas and Florida.

The SF central station’s first phase (a bus terminal just below the park rendered above) will be finished in early 2018. The second phase would have finished building Caltrain’s station two levels below ground at the end of a one mile tunnel from its 20th Century terminus.

While renderings are impressive, the TTC’s finance innovation depended on VC schemes with nearby new-built towers. (One is the Salesforce Tower that just bought TTC’s naming rights.) Far more impressive, the towers constitute a second downtown. Reflect on how this has not been accomplished since Grand Central Terminal’s mini-city was completed in Mid-town Manhattan almost nine decades ago. On the surface, this strikes me as the 21st Century’s greatest triumph of American TOD to date.

But instead of GCT’s staying power in which real estate and trains feed one another, the TTC’s trains cannot show up. Saddled with huge cost-overruns of a multi-layered deal with inadequate authority and accountability, SF cannot bring trains downtown; despite this being a priority for over a decade. Without fulfilling the promise of trains, many VC deals are falling short. Agencies operating under California’s Joint Powers Act cannot raise enough public capital, nor a sufficient revenue stream. This makes private partners wary. In terms of progress, trains jumped the track. How do we get them back on track ?

This chapter proposes a strong, sub-regional public authority to negotiate with and manage a private partner to figure how out a GCT-like dynamic today can finish the job. Re-organizing such an authority requires a state law that permits intense participation from landowners in SF, the suburban centers and all the way to San Jose.

SPUR map to SJ

The above map designed by SPUR, the Bay Area’s chief civic planning group, gives insight into a working strategy. Note that two purple Caltrain commuter rail lines do not connect to the transit-rich downtown and the BART subway. Also note the lighter purple line has only ten stops, including San Jose Diridon. This is Caltrain’s Baby Bullet; express trains serving mostly TOD suburban stations. Currently, there is no governing structure to help get any of the 24 other stations to build the TOD to generate the Value Capture subsidy required to support express service.

That is a key part of this political logic that needs to be worked through: those buildings that benefit the most from trains should pay their fair share. VC works this principle; albeit now flawed in its early stages.

The TTC funding gap can be closed by a series of economic incentives flexibly supervised by this new authority whose legitimacy and advocacy comes from an elected Board that represents districts based on proximity to train stops; using taxes layered by radiating ped-sheds at agreed upon intervals.

Try this high concept: Ped-Sheds Meet People Power.

This strategy avoids major political obstacles probably still lingering from five decades ago when south suburban counties excluded themselves from the BART system. This made Caltrain necessary. But now at capacity and stumped, the only clear path comes when California creates a metropolitan authority suitable to the tasks of train tunneling, highway pricing and overall mobility Corridor-rationalization that reduces road congestion economically.

Solving the TTC has two purposes. First, it proposes this prototype authority that also accelerates redeveloping centers in the Caltrain Corridor to pay for improved service. Instead of a sales tax increase that is hard to sell to narrow-minded folks, new funds come from increased ridership and VC schemes based on property value increases.

Second, this prototype proposal tests new authorities that, if they work, can be adapted and subsumed into a more orderly MTC… or a more comprehensive successor.

The proposal also sets up how to fathom the very fancy financing required for the second Transbay crossing. This the Bay Area must have operating in less than two decades. Currently, there is no chance of getting this necessity when one considers TTC’s tunnel is 80% shorter and cannot be completed despite being a priority since 2005.


Diridon 1:4 mile Google Map

5) Deal Details For The Caltrain Corridor: Extend Value Capture For The Network

In a Big Picture analysis, the above Google Map shows improbable bones to create a successful TOD for two major reasons.

First, downtown San Jose’s Diridon Station is hemmed by highways on two sides. This upsets a healthy urban fabric and explains how half of Diridon’s 1/4 mile ped-shed on three sides is under-utilized as surface parking. On the east, the highway separates the central station from the downtown; reducing chances of successfully extending it. West of the 1/4 mile shed, there is mostly single family homes. These characteristics of sprawl typically mitigate against a quick redevelopment into TOD.

Second, two miles north of Diridon is another hem from an expressway and a bigger subsidized infrastructure, an international airport. Federal flight clearance regulations limit Diridon’s surrounding tax base to mid-rise buildings. This reduces land values of what could be a skyscraper extension of a second downtown. By analogy… SF boosters said the TTC was needed to enhance SF’s status as a global center. So, Diridon’s placement in the middle of sprawl’s long-term investments can weaken San Jose boosters’ contention that they are the Bay Area’s other global center.

Negatives aside, there are at least three reasons to believe San Jose’s plans will produce fruit.

One reason is Google intends to buy most the parking lots and build a campus. Thus also by analogy, many of SF’s headaches can be avoided as there were too many owners around the TTC to construct a simple, lasting VC deal.

Second, Caltrain has the nation’s highest percentage of reverse commuting; thus increasing net revenue and the chances of greater all-day frequency becoming economic.

Third, the Peninsula suburbs, the South Bay and San Jose all have terrible traffic. Most the Caltrain Corridor will benefit from regulations using economics to rebalance car use.

However, these three favorable circumstances still may not make trains successful when the competition is as highly subsidized as are cars. The TTC also had favorable circumstances and its execution was competent; but, joint power boards lack authority.  Unless an agency has the authority to resolve problems, they will restrict San Jose’s ambitions for the Diridon as the centerpiece of Google’s innovation campus.

This chapter takes the outline proposed in Chapter 4 and details the deal to replace the current Joint Powers regime (based on counties) and base it, instead, on the lands from SF to San Jose who most benefit from the trains. California’s incentive to decentralize further is that it must: only an elected Caltrain Corridor Commission can construct deals that reduce car congestion in ways that do not make voters really mad at the Assembly.

This chapter syncs the regional priority of trains entering the TTC with a regional deal for a transportation policy stretching to San Jose and using trains to redevelop in-between. This proposal is part of prototyping MTC into a comprehensive — fully elected —regional authority to shape a balanced transportation policy for cars and transit.

Until Chapters 4 and 5 are released, please comment, make research suggestions and, above all, offer to critique pre-publication drafts. Thanks !

The Bay Area lessons can help the LA region; struggling to un-due its mid-century mistake of nearly killing transit and its current Century mistake of not un-doing the laws that treat the Car as if it always will be the American Dream. The lessons from urban SF to sprawling San Jose will serve as a blended prototype to be adapted to the diverse, gargantuan LA metropolis.



6) LA’s Transit Renaissance: Will It Be A Make-over ?

Since posting my 2014 hopeful review of Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) as the anchor of LA’s transit renaissance, my enthusiasm is dampened by how the car culture resists competition from alternative mobility. Resistance to change explains delays in updating LAUS, its cost-overuns and tactical mistakes. Plans to make most tracks run-through were cut by two-thirds due to huge cost increases. There also are setbacks in turning the isolated LAUS into a destination… particularly disappointing because the municipality of LA controls its land use… or should.

Also reviewed in this chapter, commuter rail ridership has flat-lined while the region’s congestion worsens. Also confirming that people are still using their cars too much on shorter runs, five of eight of LA’s light rail lines have flat-lined relative to population growth.

Other evidence indicates the premise of LA’s transit Renaissance may sit on more sand than cement. While two-thirds of voters again approved a sales tax increase to build transit, other market research indicates swing voters intended that people with lower incomes should take transit and, thus, provide relief from road congestion. Clearly, “transit-gets-other-people-out-of-my-lane” is not a consensus that grows transit use. (Curiously, this attitude — with a little shrewdness — opens up the possibility for more user fees.)

Yet in the Big Picture,  LA needs a strategy to un-do its role in making The American Dream prioritize the car… if LA is serious about a balanced transportation policy.

My quick review of LAUS is the #4 Quiz Answer. The Make-Over moniker is inevitable unless LA County figures out a new strategy to level the playing field with cars. My photo above is ARTIC, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Following in the ambitious planning footsteps of LAUS, ARTIC is southern California’s second great Edifice Complex. So dazzling is this station, that it took me a while to understand its fundamental flaws.

ARTIC bears spiritual resemblance to Disneyland, one of its four major nearby attractions. Gorgeous as ARTIC looks, it is poorly designed; adding to the growing evidence that the political appointees approving all this new transit infrastructure are as timid to explore 21st Century solutions as their political masters. I surmise that they hope a fanciful building or a new light rail line will help sustainable transportation emerge. Instead, Americans need to know the inconvenient truth about the un-affordability of the auto and the large lot suburban home for middle class families.

While professional politicians may shy from these emerging truths, their true job as leaders is to help build a new Dream for mobility. LAUS and ARTIC are the beginning metaphors to tell the new story of how sustainable transportation is more likely to emerge if cars are used less. At least, that is how my chapter treats them.

LA Metrolink map

And of course, better targeted public funds must be found. While California’s new legislation for EIFDs (Enhanced Infrastructure Finance Districts) still needs changes to make it easier to capture value, these three chapters’ primary goal is to explore how to make sure there is proper authority to spend the new tax money wisely as possible.

Linking the TODs from San Francisco to San Jose can be a prototype so southern California’s Metrolink (service area above) connects TOD-enhanced downtowns from western-most San Bernardino through LAUS to Ventura and from Oceanside north through ARTIC to LAUS. Since Metrolink politically can’t do all that for those six diverse counties, at least a new authority for LA County starts the process of how trains help redevelop stations into multi-centers for mobility’s alternative order. Make half a dozen in LA County good enough. Then, other stations across the region cannot resist… or, at least, so goes the Hollywood script.



Previewed in February 2018: How Federal Policy Can Help Commuting Within The NEC. In the previous six chapters, agencies view Uncle Sam as a checkbook and Amtrak as, let’s say, less helpful. The federal government — and certainly the national railroad — must be the partner who helps metropolitan agencies succeed in using the most effective technology to move people across a metropolis. And together, they must act together to give taxpayers value for their investment. Recent trends for performance-based federal investments must be accelerated to utilize better how trains reduce car congestion.

The NEC also highlights how Uncle Sam’s updated use of the Constitution’s commerce clause should encourage economic growth within and between metros. These enhanced federal-metro powers should help trains get un-stuck from histories dominated now by poorly cooperating states. The focus for the remaining chapters is to propose solutions that convert legacy stations and systems into high capacity through-routes.

NEC map, Amtrak