How trains under the bay - not high-speed rail - may connect Sacramento and San Francisco

For decades, train riders from Sacramento to San Francisco have been forced to get off in the East Bay and take a bus or BART into the city, adding time and hassle to what should ideally be a one-seat ride all the way.

Now, Northern California train and transit officials are proposing a dramatic upgrade.

Capitol Corridor train officials have joined with Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to explore building a second transit tunnel under San Francisco Bay that would carry additional BART trains – as well as Capitol Corridor trains directly into San Francisco job centers.

Those trains, most of which start in downtown Sacramento, could continue down the peninsula, taking riders to San Francisco International Airport and San Jose.

The proposal would allow BART to double its capacity. And it would mean Capitol Corridor could carry Sacramento commuters daily in under two hours to the burgeoning South of Market section of San Francisco.

The current Capitol Corridor train ride, which includes a transfer, takes 2 hours and 20 minutes or longer depending on traffic.

Capitol Corridor executive David Kutrosky said the project, now in its early study stages, is based on Bay Area planning studies that suggest San Francisco will add 125,000 jobs in the next few decades, but will not add nearly enough housing for those workers.

More workers will live in less expensive communities on the fringes of the Bay Area, including Solano, Yolo and Sacramento counties, which sit on the Capitol Corridor train line. Officials are now calling that area the 21-county Bay Area-based mega-region, an area that will be increasingly integrated in the decades to come.

“We are just trying to make it as easy as possible” for commuters, Kutrosky said. “When you put conventional rail across the bay, you open a whole new market. That is how you expand the reach of rail to all sections of the mega-region.”

Ellen Smith, a planner with BART, said rail will be key to growth patterns in the region as freeways and bridges become more congested. Already, many Central Valley commuters are spending several hours a day in their cars on congested highways to get to Bay Area jobs.

“We see the mega-region as an integrated economy,” she said. “We want to use rail infrastructure to tie that together, jobs, housing and entertainment together. We need to preserve quality of life.”

Capitol Corridor and BART will begin initial public outreach this spring, and plan to hire a consultant company in June to begin guiding them toward what they say could be a project groundbreaking in 10 years.

The cost of a new transbay tube, tunnel or bridge is uncertain at this point, but project proponents have said it could be in the $15 billion range. Project sponsors have not yet developed formal cost estimates and have not identified a source of revenue.

“It’s an exciting idea, but there is the reality of costs,” said Lucas Frerichs, a Capitol Corridor board member and Davis city councilman.

Officials said the Capitol Corridor trains could link to either the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Center, or at a location further south, such as the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets.

Notably, the project discussions include consideration of running San Joaquin system passenger trains from San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties into San Francisco. Should that happen, it could provide the kind of access to San Francisco jobs that the state’s now uncertain high-speed rail system was supposed to offer.

The Altamont Corridor Express, which connects the Valley to the East Bay and South Bay, has its own plans for major expansions south to Merced.

The project discussions are happening just as the state’s dream of high-speed rail was hit with what may be a fatal roadblock. Gov. Gavin Newsom last week announced the state doesn’t have the money to connect its bullet train system to San Jose, as initially planned.

Federal rail officials this week said they do not plan to send the state $929 million that had been allocated for high-speed rail, and they may attempt to claw back another $2.5 billion they already have given California.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.