Dumbarton Rail may be sacrificed to help SJ BART, Pacheco HSR
- Published Sunday, June 15, 2008, by the Redwood City Daily News
Dumbarton rail faces financial fight
Critical report questions need for project
By Will Oremus
Daily News Staff Writer
Already slowed by mounting costs and a looming legal tussle, a
$600 million project to connect the East Bay to the Peninsula with
a Caltrain rail bridge is in danger of stalling in its tracks.
Last week came a critical Santa Clara County civil grand jury
report titled, "Dumbarton Rail Bridge Project -- Do we need it?"
Now the regional commission that holds its purse strings may shunt
$91 million to a proposed extension of BART toward San Jose.
Officially, the project is still chugging ahead, with trains
scheduled to begin running between Newark and Menlo Park in 2012.
Backers believe it will eventually be an essential cog in the Bay
Area's transit network, easing the traffic and environmental problems
created by the droves of Peninsula workers who commute from the less-
expensive East Bay.
But the setbacks have supporters lowering their expectations and
critics circling like buzzards. Realistically, those involved say,
it's shaping up to be a long haul.
"This project, like many other big capital projects, is struggling
to get off the ground," said Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan
Transportation Commission, which plans and finances regional transit
The reasons for the difficulty are manifold.
They start with the price tag, which in the course of the planning
process has doubled from the original estimate of $300 million.
Voters approved $135 million in Dumbarton Bridge toll revenues for
the rail project in 2004, but there's no plan to make up the gap
that has emerged since.
To complicate matters, the Union Pacific Railroad owns part of the
line and doesn't appear eager to sell. Then there are residents in
Menlo Park and other cities who are concerned about noise. Others
aren't pleased that the service would initially be only westbound in
the morning and eastbound in the evening, rendering it useless for
the minority who commute in the reverse direction.
Added to their voices are those of critics who believe there are more
efficient ways to ease Dumbarton Bridge freeway traffic, such as an
express bus lane or an electric light-rail system. Menlo Park City
Council Member Heyward Robinson questions the wisdom of building
an "old style, heavy rail" extension just as Caltrain is looking to
electrify the rest of its line.
Besides, he noted, traffic jams on the Dumbarton Bridge have died
down since the project started gaining momentum in the dot-com
era. "I think it is appropriate for everybody to step back for a
second and ask, 'Is this the best thing we could be doing with the
dollars we have?'"
The anonymous, citizen-led Santa Clara County civil grand jury honed
in on those issues in a June 4 report. It cited a study from 2004
that estimated daily ridership on the line would be just 12,800 by
Calling the rail bridge's benefits "questionable," the grand jury
urged the county's Valley Transportation Authority to reconsider its
$44 million commitment to the project. The VTA has 90 days to craft
an official response to the recommendations.
The rail bridge's supporters put little stock in the report.
Malcolm Dudley, a longtime Atherton official who has been fighting
for a Dumbarton train since before the freeway bridge was built,
said it would be shortsighted to cut back on funding now.
"To talk about it as a train between Union City and this side of the
Bay is missing the point," he said. "This is about interconnectivity
to all rail
systems. It's about connecting up (the Peninsula) with BART, the
Altamont Commuter Express, the Capitol Corridor."
Sue Lempert, the former San Mateo mayor who sits on the MTC and
several other transportation boards, recalled that a previous civil
grand jury in Santa Clara County blasted the rival BART-to-San Jose
"Grand juries change," she noted wryly.
Liz Kniss, a Santa Clara County supervisor who chairs the VTA,
questioned the grand jury's reliance on a 2007 study that found "low
ridership potential" for the proposed Dumbarton line.
"Gas prices were much lower when that study was done," she said. "In
the last couple of months, our ridership is up, and interest in any
kind of rail project has risen dramatically."
Still, Kniss agrees with the grand jury that Dumbarton shouldn't be
the county's top transit priority. Rather, it's the extension of BART
to San Jose, a huge undertaking for which the county is exploring a
funding measure on the November ballot.
That can't go forward without BART first being extended to a proposed
station in Fremont's Warm Springs district, another long-planned
project that stands just $144 million short of its funding goal.
Therein lies the latest threat to the Dumbarton plans.
In a report issued Thursday, the MTC divided big regional transit
projects into four tiers based on how close they are to being fully
planned and funded. Warm Springs extension was in the high-priority
second tier, along with the BART Oakland airport connector and
Dumbarton rail landed in the bottom tier, for "projects with a
capital shortfall greater than 50 percent of total cost."
The discrepancy led MTC staff to recommend diverting $91 million in
Dumbarton toll money to close the gap on the Warm Springs project. In
theory, the money would be repaid later from a separate funding pool.
"The idea is to put the money we have into the projects that are
ready to go right away," said Doug Kimsey, the MTC's planning
director. "We don't want to just be holding money back waiting for
projects to move along."
The scheme got mixed reviews at an MTC meeting Thursday in Oakland.
Union City Mayor Mark Green, a leader on the Dumbarton rail policy
committee, argued losing the money would be a huge blow to the
project, hindering negotiations with Union Pacific.
San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said she sees the logic
but thinks it's premature to divert funds to Warm Springs with BART-
to-San Jose still in doubt. She also wonders whether the money would
But Warm Springs backers feel it's about time they were on the
receiving end. They're still waiting for $145 million that was
borrowed from their project to pay for BART's San Francisco Airport
extension, which opened in 2004 and has fallen drastically short of
"I think there's a history of moving money around to get these major
public works projects built," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott
Haggerty. "I think it will be paid back, and that will someday put
(Dumbarton rail) in a position where it becomes the No. 1 priority."
The MTC's board will be asked to make a decision on the plan at its
next meeting, on July 9.
BY THE NUMBERS
A look at the key figures in the Dumbarton Rail Corridor plan to
connect Caltrain to the East Bay:
6: Number of trains that would run across the bridge daily. They
would leave Newark in the morning, with three heading north from
Menlo Park and three south. They would return along the same route
in the evening.
2012: Year construction is supposed to be complete. Delays could
prolong that indefinitely.
12,800: Number of people who would ride the train daily by 2030,
according to projections from 2004. Supporters believe high gas
prices could significantly increase that number.
$600 million: Latest cost projection. Less than half that money is
available, and there's no plan for where to find the rest.
$91 million: Amount that the MTC is considering loaning from
Dumbarton rail to help pay for an extension of BART to Fremont's Warm
Springs district -- a step toward an eventual San Jose extension.
E-mail Will Oremus at woremus@...
[BATN: See also:
SCCo. civil grand jury questions VTA's Dumbarton rail contribution
Shock news: 98-yr-old abandoned Dumbarton rail bridge in disrepair
Union City recognized for TOD near BART, future Dumbarton rail
Dumbarton Rail advisory panel to meet in Newark on Tuesday
SMCo. bridge history: Dumbarton Bridge was first to span the Bay
NIMBY Menlo Park to study Dumbarton rail station location
Citing NIMBY fears, Fremont opposes Altamont HSR route
Union City backs Altamont HSR, while NIMBY Fremont doesn't
Regional Rail plan calls for Caltrain upgrades, Dumbarton rail
Comment: NIMBYs have nothing to fear from Dumbarton rail
Public invited to Dumbarton Rail Corridor scoping meetings
Dumbarton rail delayed till 2012 -- cost doubles in 2 years
Dumbarton Rail delayed to 2012; UP seeks freight train access
Fremont NIMBYs fight Dumbarton Rail, Union City station
Fremont NIMBYs gird to fight Union City station plan
Surprise! Fremont NIMBYs still oppose Union City rail plan
Dumbarton Bridge rail plan fully funded, moving ahead
NIMBY Fremont blasts Union City rail project study design
Orchestrated Fremont NIMBY crew opposes non-BART rail, again
Fremont anti-rail NIMBYs cite cancer in bid to block rail link
Dumbarton rail line ties burned on Hwy 101 bridge (13 Jun 01)
Dumbarton Bridge rail service plan approved (13 Jan 01)