San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center is Open!

Exactly 8 years since the beginning of its construction, on August 11, 2018, the long-awaited replacement Transbay Transit Center, officially named the Salesforce Transit Center, opened its doors to the public. It will continue a struggling history of the original San Francisco Transbay Terminal, which closed on August 7th, 2010. The opening makes available the 5.4 acre Salesforce Park, provide thousands of square feet for retail and office space, a dedicated bus bridge, showcase new displays of artistic works and a 36 bay bus deck.

Transit Center Front Door during opening Transbay Bus Bay 16 View of Transbay Bus Bridge as AC Transit and MUNI bus pass each other

History of Transbay Terminal

The original San Francisco Transbay Terminal opened in 1938, owned by the California Department of Transportation(Caltrans). It served as the terminus for railroad passengers from the Interurban Electric, Key System, and the Sacramento Northern railroad companies. At this time railroads provided a direct line to San Francisco over the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge from East Bay and as far as Chico and Sacramento. But then World War 2 happened(1939-1945), the American personal automobile along with suburbanization became radically popularized in the 50s, the interstate highway was being constructed(1956) and even the Bay Area Rapid Transit was being proposed(1946) foreseeing the future bay bridge bottleneck.

The final train ran to the terminal in 1958, only 20 years after service to the terminal began. As automobility popularity grew, the Transbay Terminal was redeveloped to accommodate the needs of a bus depot with street pavement rather than rail. AC Transit, the primary East Bay transit operator and public-owned reincarnation of the Key System, began using the Transbay Terminal the following year for Transbay bus service. Greyhound started service to the terminal in 1960 and then Amtrak began busing into the Terminal in 1971.

A new Transbay Transit Center

Caltrain planned to extend the tracks closer to downtown San Francisco as early as 1994, reviewing options to extended closer to the Financial District in 1995. Prop H: Downtown Caltrain Station passed in 1999 with 69.3% of the vote made it clear that the voters of San Francisco wanted a downtown Caltrain Station. Prop H dedicated city officials and staff to ensure that Caltrain was electrified, was extended to a downtown station and reached Bay Area Rapid Transit(BART) levels of service. The Transbay Joint Powers Authority(TJPA) came into being on April 4th, 2001. This was a pact and authority between the City and County of San Francisco, the Alameda-Contra Costa(AC) Transit District, and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board(Caltrain). The TJPA would own and manage the Transbay Terminal and construct a new Transbay Transit Center and subway for Caltrain.

In 2004 the TJPA finalized its Final Environmental Impact Report(FEIR) for both the Transbay Transit Center and the Caltrain downtown extension(DTX). Pressured by the San Francisco Supervisors, in May 2006 the TJPA board was presented the 2 phased approach and approved the approach in the June 2006 meeting. Phase 1 would build the entirety of the Transit Center and bus bridge. Phase 2 would complete the Caltrain downtown extension and underground pedestrian path to the Montgomery BART/MUNI Metro station. By phasing the San Francisco planners could continue to strategize Caltrain subway options and TJPA wouldn’t need to fund the subway to get the bus deck, park, retail and community benefits.

Caltrans transferred ownership of the Transbay Terminal to the TJPA on August 7th, 2010. The terminal was locked up the same day to be demolished [timelapse video] over a year. Construction of the replacement Transbay Transit Center began 4 days later as buses entering San Francisco were rerouted to the Temporary Transbay Terminal[Timelapse Video] for the next 8 years.

Temporary Trasbay Terminal

A Center of Criticism

The construction of the Transbay Transit Center, like most other infrastructure projects, gained its skeptics and earned its criticism. Initially, the construction was supposed to start September of 2009 but the TJPA preferred to include the Train box in Phase 1. The contracts with Webcor Builders and Obayashi Corporation were amended to start in August 2010 and construction began that month. The Transbay Transit Center’s completion date was expected to be late 2017, instead, it was delayed at least five times to the end of Summer 2018. Required because of last minute construction workers shortage, notably sought after electricians.

Time Builds Increasing Cost

In the original 2004 FEIR TJPA staff estimated a cost of $1.106 billion for the Transit Center and $977M for the Caltrain Subway. In May 2010 the budget for construction cost just for phase one was estimated to be $1.189 billion, however, this included completing the train box. In early 2013 TJPA staff presented on increasing the construction cost to $1.589B finally settling on recommending a budget in July of $1.899B. Staff explained this increase as a result of the bounce-back of the economy after the 2008 Recession (great for the country, unfortunate for planners). Competition for resources, construction material (particularly steel and concrete), labor and contractors was increasing, likely due to a quiet success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, of which the Transit Center was a beneficiary of. Even with the budget revision, the TJPA had to make concessions to reduce the budget shortfall. The TJPA Board voted to defer a park cafe and a second service elevator, to eliminate a lily pond for the park and to use cheaper materials for aesthetic features of the building.

In July 2015 TJPA found that it needed to raise the budget again. This time due to scope changes, the difficulty of building in a rapidly evolving working neighborhood and higher than anticipated bids from contractors. With the increase in construction costs and the need to replenish contingencies funds, TJPA staff recommended adding $246.9 million. However, in September the Metropolitan Transportation Commission(MTC) Program and Allocations Committee completed its cost review of the project and recommended adding another $247M to cost of the Transit Center. On April 14th, 2016, the Board approved its final Phase 1 budget of $2.259B along with a generous $260M loan from San Francisco and MTC.

Salesforce Park amphitheater with Salesforce tower in background

Selling the Name

Beyond the funding issues, the Transbay Transit Center made headlines when it decided to sell naming rights of a megaproject public-owned transit center to a business. This is typical for public-owned sporting venues like the Sacramento Golden 1 Center, Oakland Oracle Arena or the San Jose SAP Center but such agreements are untraditional with Transit Centers. Although there is precedent with rail stations and rail lines being sponsored by private businesses or universities. Clearly, Salesforce, which leased and renamed the 1040 ft Transbay Tower standing over the transit center, would have a competitive interest. Salesforce is not a despised company, has maintained a standard-setting relationship with San Francisco and the abbreviation of “SF” clearly works to everyone’s benefit. In the July 2017, the board approved a 25 year $110 million dollar Naming and Signage Rights agreement with Salesforce and the Transbay Transit Center was officially dubbed the Salesforce Transit Center.

San Francisco’s own Leaning Millennium Tower

The Millennium Tower, opened in 2009, is the final piece of criticism for Phase 1 of the transit center, albeit a comical one. In 2016, reports started to come out about how the Millennium Tower, a tower for the rich and elite was sinking and tilting. The problem was known about since before construction on the Transit Center that the tower was 4 inches deeper than it was supposed to be. That didn’t stop the Millennium Partners from suing the TJPA or the city. Despite TJPA’s investment of $58M to install an underground buttressing system to defend the ground below the tower, the Millennium Partners believe the transit center nonetheless caused their issues. San Francisco supervisors implemented a new rule to prevent these conflicts again, there are several options to correct the issue and the lawsuits are ongoing.

Will Trains ever reach the Salesforce Transit Center?

The official estimation for the cost of phase 2 of the Caltrain subway stands at $3.925 billion dollars. A far cry from the $1 billion dollars, in theory, it might have cost in 2004. Even worst is that many of the funds intended for phase 2 were spent to ensure phase 1 completed. But the train is the point, whatever happens, San Francisco and the State of California are owed a train subway to Downtown San Francisco.

Now what happens

Super long line in the grand hall during the salesforce openingThe Salesforce Transit Center right away is an icon of San Francisco. A roaring success with its opening and the first week, even with the absence of trains. The building spanning 3 blocks adds to the city distinguishing structures like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, Sutro Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid and Salesforce Tower. The role the transit center will play in San Francisco culture is yet to be defined, as the “Transbay District” or rather the “East Cut District” continues to be developed. East Bay residents travelling in and out of the city by bus enjoy no longer being subject to the traffic surrounding the Temporary Transbay Terminal. Such an unknown modern architectural model naturally requires amateur and professional photographers to share every angle of it. And TJPA’s efforts to prevent the Salesforce Transit Center from becoming residence to the homeless must begin, anyone who has visited the center will note the plentiful police presence and Allied Protective services.

salesforce park dance floorRetail will fill the bottom half with local vendors, a few franchises, likely a grocery store. Office space on the second floor will be filled, mostly likely by tech startups. Eventually, a rooftop restaurant will open on the top floor to offer their cuisine to anyone looking to eat with a view. Salesforce Park will attract thousands of new South of Market(SoMa) residents, tourists and workers with events scheduled throughout the year. The bus deck(3rd floor) will serve millions of East Bay riders as AC Transit implements the final phase of its Transbay Tomorrow program(expected December 2018). Greyhound and Boltbus have already started using the bus deck with their dedicated bays and Amtrak will move into the center in August 2018.

The final component for the Transbay Center is going to be bringing Caltrain and California High Speed Rail to this lonely train box. The TJPA board received a presentation on rail options in the April 2018 meeting and finally received San Francisco’s Rail Alignment and Benefits(RAB) study report. The RAB Study was a massive San Francisco multi-agency study to thoroughly investigate the options for a Caltrain subway. This study is why the Transit Center was phased. Concluding the study San Francisco planners seem eager on constructing the downtown extension as a subway or trenched street along Pennsylvania Ave. Opportunities for land in San Francisco are limited and the Caltrain Railyard at 4th and King, settled in the middle of the SoMa District, looks extremely attractive for development. But the consequences of waiting have already severely damaged the viability of completing the subway. Cost estimates have risen to more than $3 billion, with estimates of the new alignment stating even as high as $6 billion and could take up to 2027. The Salesforce Transit Center will have to struggle to find its meaning until then.