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Five surprising facts about the Transbay Terminal construction site

Audrey Dilling
Construction on the Transbay Terminal, as seen from the west.



When it’s finished, the Transbay Terminal will be a hub for 11 public transit systems – from Muni to AC Transit to California High Speed Rail – connecting people from all around the state. It’s being touted as the future “Grand Central of the West”. But right now, it’s a big hole in the ground – one that people have to travel around, rather than through.

Construction began in 2010. And for those who pass by it everyday, it can start to seem like just another part of the messy backdrop of urban life. I wanted to find out what’s going on behind all of that safety fencing and equipment, so I headed to the site to find five surprising facts about it.

I start my quest 21 stories above the massive construction site, at the headquarters of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the organization managing the project. Below me, I can see people in hard hats, driving forklifts, and working cranes. And then there are the giant brown pipes stretching across the the enormous hole in the ground.

“They are temporary that ultimately get removed,” says Dennis Turchon, senior construction manager for the project, and my guide. “As you excavate next to very tall buildings” – excavate, as in, dig a four-block-long hole in the middle of the city –  “or, any kind of excavation that you want to keep the sides up and keep your integrity so you can build what you need to build in that excavation.”

Translation: Those big pipes are keeping the rest of San Francisco from falling into the construction site.

Surprising thing number one: The process of building requires ... more building.

Turchon shows me another example of this down at ground level. We head through an entrance to the site down a narrow alley off of 2nd Street.

“Looking to our right you can see all the falsework for our bus ramp,” Turchon says.

Falsework – that’s another thing you have to build in order to build something. In this case, it’s an overpass made out of wood that will be filled with concrete that, Turchon explains, “will eventually come to our bus deck, which is the area right above us.”

Above us, steel beams rise high into the air – part of the frame of what will be a five-level transit mecca, with connections to eight bus lines, BART and two train lines. The new Transbay Terminal will also have a park on top that’s supposed to double the amount of green space in the SOMA neighborhood. It’ll be the heart of what’s being called the “Transbay District” – complete with the new tallest building in San Francisco, the 61-story high Salesforce tower. Take that, Transamerica Pyramid.

The San Francisco Chronicle once called the old Transbay Terminal a pit of despair. But the new one will be bathed in natural light streaming in from a dramatic skylight. Right now though, the future “Grand Central of the West” looks more like a big, cluttered basement. With lots and lots of rebar sticking out of it. And bundles of pipes and two by fours lying around.

“All this equipment and material has to get here somehow,” says Turchon. “It's not like we're working out in the middle of nowhere.”

Surprising thing number two: If you think the Transbay Terminal construction is getting in your way, well, you’re kind of in its way, too.

But the workers are trying to make it as painless as possible.

“And when it goes well, nobody knows about that planning,” Turchon continues. “When something goes wrong, then people know you're there. The goal is to just do this and be a very good neighbor through the whole process.”

And then they’ve got to worry about keeping all that stuff in order on the actual site.

“Housekeeping is a very important element to safety and just logistics of the project," says Turchon.

As we observe the site, a big truck vacuums up dust and water.

“It's like cleaning up as you cook,” says Turchon. “It's very important when you're on a very large construction project to clean up as you go.”

Surprising thing number three: Making a gigantic transit hub is kind of like making dinner.

It’s also kind of like time travel.

“You learn a lot about the history of the area when you do an excavation like this,” says Turchon.

Surprising thing number four: Construction crews have found some pretty interesting stuff while digging.

The first thing was a 13,000-year-old mammoth tooth. You can see it now at the California Academy of Sciences.

They also dug up a bunch of old wooden beams from the thirties and tons and tons of sand from when this part of town used to be the shoreline.

And the digging isn’t not over. Phase one of the project is the terminal building and the bus line connections. Then comes phase two – linking up with Caltrain and California High Speed Rail.

“And that all needs to be worked out in the future, because right now it's only about 35 percent designed,” says Turchon.

Surprising thing number five: You can start building a $4.5 billion dollar transit hub without knowing exactly how the trains will arrive.

According to the original plans, Caltrain would follow a line like what Turchon described. But lately, Mayor Lee has started weighing in. He’d like to scrap the 4th and King station altogether and extend the trains up from the 22nd Street station, in part, to include the new Warriors stadium on the train line. And there’s actually no funding yet for either option. As for High Speed Rail, construction on that began in Fresno in July. High speed rail officials say the bullet train won’t be pulling into the terminal until 2029. Critics say the project is over budget and behind schedule.

But construction manager Dennis Turchon chooses to celebrate the small milestones.

On our way out of the site, he points out one upright steel beam with a splash of orange painted on it. Turchon says there’s a tradition in construction to paint the first piece to rise above street level.

“When you're a hole in the ground for three years, you celebrate that first piece above ground,” he says.

All of the pieces of the Transbay Terminal building are scheduled to be above ground and put together by the year 2017.

You can watch the construction of the Transbay Terminal in real time here.