For some people, the daily commute will get a little easier this week. Monday morning, a new ferry service between the Oakland, Alameda, and South San Francisco opened. In San Francisco, regular service resumed on the MUNI’s N Judah and J Church lines, after ten days of repair work at some of the city’s busiest transit junctions. Statewide, however, things aren’t so bright. A new poll shows that voters are losing faith in plans for a high-speed rail system in California. Despite this, Governor Jerry Brown is proposing legislation that would give High-Speed Rail a pass from complying with some of the requirements of California’s strict environmental protection laws.
Transportation reporter Julie Caine sat down with Hana Baba to talk about what’s happening in Bay Area transportation news.
HANA BABA: Let’s start with high-speed rail. Can you remind us where things stand with this project?
JULIE CAINE: Sure. Well, the California High-Speed Rail Authority – they’re the ones responsible for the planning, financing, and ultimate implementation of getting the bullet trains built in California – just hired former Caltrans director Jeff Morales as their new CEO. Morales has intimate ties to high speed rail. He’s an executive with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company doing project management for the bullet train.
BABA: Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
CAINE: It might be. State senate transportation committee chairman Mark DeSaulnier said he was “troubled by the relationship.” And state senator Doug LaMalfa, a critic of the project as a whole, was quoted in the LA Times as saying “it's difficult to believe that Mr. Morales can be counted on to drive a hard bargain with the company that has been paying his salary.”
The Rail Authority is standing behind Morales, saying he’s the best choice for the job – it’s been vacant since January. The plan for building the project, is due to go before the legislature later this month. Lawmakers will be asked to release bond money needed to start initial construction of the train later this year in the Central Valley.
BABA: What’s the political support like?
CAINE: Governor Brown says he still fully supports the project, to the point where he’s proposed legislation that would exempt the bullet train from certain requirements of California’s Environmental Quality Act. It’s an attempt to block opponents of the bullet train, who could use the environmental law to stop construction altogether.
BABA: What kinds of requirements?
CAINE: Well, more details about Governor Brown’s proposal are expected next week, but basically it looks like it would mean people who want to use environmental law to stop the train would have to prove, in court, that the train would cause major environmental problems, like wiping out habitat or an endangered species. In the past, opponents have used the law to hold up construction plans for much more minor issues.
BABA: Sounds like things are heating up.
CAINE: They are. And, according to an LA Times/USC poll last week, voters are losing faith in the project. Statewide, more than half want another chance to vote on the bond measure that voters approved in 2008 to provide initial funding for the project. The polls show that if it were up for a vote again, almost 60 percent would vote against it.
BABA: We’ll be interested to find out what happens with this. So, let’s move from high-speed trains to light rail. Yesterday marked the end of a Muni project dubbed the “Long Shut Down.” Can you tell us what that was about?
CAINE: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA, which runs Muni, shut down the entire N Judah line and ran limited service on the J Church and 22 Fillmore for ten days. Service is back up and running now, but it seems like they’re still having a few hiccups. One of our reporters here noticed a long back-up of outbound N trains at Church and Duboce this morning, and yesterday, an N train broke down in the avenues, causing a system wide backup for much of them morning.
Muni was working simultaneously in two locations—at Carl Street, and at the busy Church and Duboce intersection. They were replacing worn tracks, upgrading signals and switches that tell trains where to go and which track they should be on, and working on making it safer for pedestrians in both places. At Church and Duboce, they also did work on the sewers—they were taking advantage of the fact that they’d already closed down and dug up that entire intersection.
Last week, I met up with Greg Dewar, who writes a blog called the N-Judah Chronicles, and he described it like this.
DEWAR: I liken it to someone getting their wisdom teeth pulled, getting braces, and a few other painful dental procedures all at once.
CAINE: It was pretty extensive work, and required massive re-routing of some of the city’s busiest transit lines, but it was the only way to do the repairs. The last time they did work on this scale at Church and Duboce was 20 years ago. That intersection is pretty complex, and can be hard to navigate—bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers, Muni trains, and buses all come through, and it’s not always so clear who should cross when. SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose told me they hope the new signals will help make things easier for everybody.
ROSE: That’s one of the things we’re looking at in this intersection is how do bikes and pedestrians and transit riders all coexist on one street. Some of the new traffic signals will help with pedestrians and transit right of way.
BABA: So, how much did this particular project cost?
CAINE: About $40 million—that’s for repairs at Church and Duboce and at Carl Street. Rose said that’s only a fraction of what it would cost to replace the entire system.
ROSE: At this point, to replace everything in our system would cost about $500 million. We carry about 700,000 trips a day, so we have to do this work as we go.
BABA: So, what’s next on Muni’s repair list?
CAINE: The MTA just received around $675,000 in state bond money to do repair work in what’s called the Persia Triangle—intersections at Persia, Ocean, and Mission Street on Muni’s 29 route. But the big project on Muni’s list is the Central Subway, which just got about $48 million in state bond money. The Central Subway is due to open in 2019.
BABA: And we’ve got a new way to get between the East Bay and the Peninsula, right?
CAINE: Right. A new ferry service between Oakland, Alameda and South San Francisco just opened yesterday. It’s the first new ferry route to be opened since 1992. The idea is to give workers an easier way to get to companies like Genentech.
BABA: Are there any other routes in the works?
CAINE: The Water Emergency Transportation Authority – the agency that operates many of the Bay Area’s ferries – says the next route would bring ferries to Berkeley and Richmond.