Below ground at the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco is a train portal without tunnel connections. On Monday, city, state and national leaders announced $3.4 billion in federal funding that will help connect the portal to Caltrain and, eventually, the California High-Speed Rail system.

The funds are promised to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, or TJPA, the agency that owns and operates the Salesforce Transit Center. If the grant is matched, it will be used to build an extension of the Caltrain system to the portal from its current location at Fourth and King Streets.

The total price tag for the two-mile Caltrain extension is $7.5 billion. The new grant will cover 41 perecent of it. With funding in place, completion for the extension will be around 2033, according to a TJPA spokesperson.

On Monday in the Grand Hall of the Salesforce Transit Center, Mayor London Breed was joined by several stakeholders, including State Sen. Scott Wiener and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Redwood City Mayor and TJPA Chair Jeff Gee credited Pelosi for getting the portal project started.

A rendering depicts a cross section of the Salesforce Transit Center, as envisioned with Caltrain and high-speed rail terminals below ground. (Transbay Joint Powers Authority via Pagransen)

“In 2010, she was the driving force behind the Obama administration’s decision to provide $400 million to build the train box through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act,” Gee said, “which put people back to work. This new matching grant brings the project to being two-thirds funded.”

Gee also thanked TJPA vice-chair Supervisor Raphael Mendelson, who helped secure the passage of Proposition L, an extension of San Francisco’s half-cent sales tax for transportation, securing $300 million for the portal. The Caltrain extension will be done through sequential excavation, digging a trench from above, with decking overhead so city life can continue during construction.

SF to LA in under three hours

The Salesforce Transit Center, a 1.2 million-square-foot transportation hub that spans nearly four city blocks, will eventually integrate 11 transportation services.

The initial segment for the California High-Speed Rail was required by the California legislature in 2002. It will eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. A few years following a $10 billion state bond measure that passed in 2008, construction began on a 119-mile starter segment in the Central Valley.

“It got started pretty awkwardly,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate change program at UC Berkeley Law School. “Because there’s a deadline to start construction with federal dollars. So, they sort of had to start building before they even had acquired all the land.”

“They made a potentially fatal mistake starting in the Central Valley. ... And it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to go back to California voters to ask for more money to finish the system.”

Ethan Elkind, director of the climate change program at UC Berkeley Law School

California’s high-speed rail will be the first in North America, so the project is more expensive, Elkind said, because the state lacks a supply chain and experience. European countries that have high-speed rail have more centralized permitting authorities, he said. According to a 2023 report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, project costs for the initial segment were $35 billion.

“They made a potentially fatal mistake starting in the Central Valley,” said Elkind. “Once the Central Valley segment is built, it really won’t provide any tangible benefits to the voters of the state and the major population centers. And it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to go back to California voters to ask for more money to finish the system.”

Closing Monday’s event at Salesforce Transit Center, Pelosi said the new rail projects are about saving the planet, less driving, clean air and a better quality of life for people having to commute to the city from more affordable neighborhoods.

“We have a transit-oriented president of the United States,” said Pelosi. “Every day for decades, he took the train from Delaware to Washington and back. So, when we talked to him about high-speed rail and mass transit, he said, ‘you don’t have to tell me, I’m the high-speed rail president.’”