A Predawn Bus Ride, a Reopened Terminal, and a Slice of Bay Area Transit History

1 min
AC Transit buses arriving at the Transbay Transit Center Sunday morning, Aug. 11, 2019.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

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hris Peeples is not just a long-time member of the AC Transit board of directors. In his sixth elected term, he's a real bus-riding enthusiast with a feel for Bay Area transportation history.

So a year ago today, when the Transbay Transit Center opened for bus service for the first time, he was out at a boarding island at the Fruitvale BART station well before first light on a Sunday morning. He waited with a couple of dozen others, including several agency executives, for the 5 a.m. run of AC Transit's O line, which was scheduled to be the first bus to cruise into the transit center's pristine bus deck.

That ride last Aug. 12 was a sort of bookend trip. Peeples had been on the last bus out of the old Transbay Terminal, which was torn down to make way for the new center and Salesforce Tower.

Opening & Reopening the Transit Center
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"The last bus out on August 7, 2010, was an O bus at seven minutes after midnight," Peeples recalled last year. "I was on that one, too."

There was one hiccup in the plan that morning: The O was held up by heavy traffic because of an accident on the Nimitz Freeway. But it still arrived in time to be the first bus into the transit center, beating a run of the F bus from Berkeley by 5 minutes or so. A crowd of AC Transit officials and employees was on hand to cheer, pictures were snapped and everyone swarmed the coffee and pastries the agency had provided for the occasion.

Six weeks later, last Sept. 25, workers doing some finishing work on the center's bus deck discovered cracks in a massive girder supporting the facility's rooftop park.

That started a long process of investigation and repair — complete with a panel of engineering experts to consider what went wrong with the girder and study whether other parts of the $2.2 billion facility were vulnerable to a similar catastrophic failure.

That history was on Peeples' mind when he once again arrived at Fruitvale Station on Sunday morning to catch the 5 a.m. O bus. Like last year, that run was scheduled to be the very first into the reopened transit center.

"One of my colleagues reminded me this week that I did this last year — I came in on the first bus — and the Salesforce Transit Center broke," Peeples said. "And he wondered whether I wasn't maybe bad luck for the center. My take on it is that if it breaks again, I will never come back into the center."

But Peeples also said he feels reassured by the deliberate approach that the facility's owner, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, had taken to repairing the fractured steel and addressing other potential issues in the building.

"I think there are a whole lot of people with very impressive resumes who sat on the expert panel, and they will be very embarrassed if it breaks again, so I think they’ve made sure that it won’t," he said.

If the freshly reopened transit center lives up to its name — if commuters can get in and out of the place with no untoward delays and maybe steal a few minutes at the beginning or end of the day to contemplate the steel-and-glass jungle that encircles the beautiful rooftop park — people will come to take it for granted.

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ut of course, the facility is a work in progress. It was never intended to be just a bus station at any price tag, much less one that reads in the billions of dollars.

Last week's meeting of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board heard a couple of presentations on what the agency calls "Phase 2" of the transit center project: extending rail service 1.3 miles across downtown from the current Caltrain terminal at 4th and Townsend streets to an underground complex beneath the center.

One presentation focused on how the project, called the Downtown Extension, or DTX, will be managed. The other came from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which talked about how it has refined its plan to bring the bullet train into the Bay Area from the San Joaquin Valley. (Yes, high-speed rail is in a kind of limbo right now, mainly because of questions about funding. But planning continues.)

Serious discussions about the extension have gone on for decades — at least since the late 1980s — without rail service having gotten an inch closer to downtown.

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The current estimated completion date for the project is 2029. The earliest the bullet train might arrive, by most projections, is in the early 2030s. Dates like that have some people starting to measure the likelihood they'll see the vision become reality by their anticipated lifespans. Peeples, who's in his early 70s, is one of those.

Today, he said, the transit center's importance is that it serves as a hub for transit operations. Maybe in a far-off August, it will be more.

"Right now, it's AC Transit, it's Muni, it's Golden Gate Transit, it's SamTrans, all coming into one place in downtown San Francisco. "Hopefully, within my lifetime, it will be Caltrain coming in here. Maybe sometime after I've passed away it will be high-speed rail."

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