SamTrans unveils ambitious Dumbarton Corridor study for October board decisions

At Wednesday’s board meeting on August 2, SamTrans revealed the results of its study of Dumbarton Corridor transit, projecting over 23,000 riders by 2035 with a mix of bus and rail recommendations, a level of ridership that justifies investment.

The program of proposed investments would use a combination of highway bridge changes, rail bridge restoration, revival of the nearly-abandoned rail right of way, and freeway-izing Bayfront Expressway with goals of improving ridership and relieving congestion.

The outcomes will have potentially transformative consequences for mobility on the congested corridor, regional transportation connections, planned growth including housing, the experience of neighborhood services and public places, local health and safety, climate goals and even bay restoration.

The board presentation is here, and the full report is expected to be published on August 15.

SamTrans is seeking accelerated public feedback and speedy decisions, with two public meetings on back-to-back dates in August (see below), and a board decision on alternatives in October.

Eminently sensible near-term improvements boost buses

The study recommends some eminently sensible near-term investments in the next 2-3 years to increase ridership on the Dumbarton Express Bus lines, adding variants to popular destinations in Menlo Park/Redwood City and Mountain View/Sunnyvale, increasing service frequency, and adding signal priority for the buses, increasing ridership from 10,200 today to 13,700.


Mid-term – express lanes, flyovers, and highway interchanges

Then, in about a decade from now (2025-2030), the study recommends more dramatic changes. Express lanes on the Dumbarton bridge would speed buses and carpools. The study explores a reversible lane (a good fit for a corridor where 79% of trips are in the peak direction), or converting a lane in each direction. It recommends converting two lanes instead of reversing one, because that would encourage the most transit use, according to study lead Melissa Reggiardo.

dumbarton express lanes

Then, bus riders would get a speedy connection to Highway 101’s managed lanes with direct flyover connections. And drivers would get freeway interchanges to avoid the current delays at stoplights at University, Willow, and Marsh roads (see slide 11, though it’s low-resolution and a challenge to decipher).

The study projects that this set of projects would cost over $900 million, and would more than double bus ridership to 21,300.

flyovers and interchanges

Interchanges, neighborhoods, wetlands, and moving bottlenecks

A decade ago, the Peninsula 2020 report  proposed relieving bottlenecks on the Bayfront Expressway approach to the Dumbarton Bridge by “freeway-izing” Highway 84, replacing the stoplights at University and Willow with interchanges.

Since the report was written a decade ago, much has changed. Facebook moved into the old Sun campus, abandoned after Oracle purchased Sun in 2009.  Menlo Park completed an update to its General Plan with major plans to transform the area near Belle Haven and Facebook from an under-utilized, single use industrial park to a mixed-use, pedestrian and bike-friendly, mixed use neighborhood, with housing and services including a grocery store, which the formerly redlined area has long lacked.

Facebook has just come out with a proposal for land it purchased at Willow and Bayfront, with housing, retail, and offices, and public space.


The proposed freeway ramps for the Willow grade separation would seemingly land on top of what Facebook proposes as the neighborhood’s public square. Or, perhaps the grade separation would be designed with an underpass below the public square, in an area at sea level in the path of sea level rise.


The other highway interchange would be added to replace the Bayfront/University stoplight, next to (or on top of?) wetlands that are part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, part of the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast, with stewards from a partnership of federal, state, and regional organizations.

In order for stakeholders to evaluate the interchange ideas, it will be important to have maps and drawings showing how much space these interchanges would take up, and how they would affect the plans for land use, for people in Menlo Park, and for people and wildlife in East Palo Alto.

ravenswood restoration

Congestion relief or moving bottlenecks?

The hope for the freeway interchanges is that they would help drivers move more smoothly and swiftly from the bridge out toward Highway 101, and relieve cut-through traffic in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven neighborhoods.

This scenario has risks.  A very large share of travellers across the bridge are headed for destinations in Palo Alto and points south. So a detour up toward Redwood City and turn back on 101 may not be appealing for these drivers.  If it becomes easier for drivers to get over and off the bridge, more people might choose to drive, and the bottlenecks upstream could get even worse, if that could be imagined.

no-room-upstream-willow-pm no-room-upstream-university

Medium and long-term rail connections

In the medium term, in the 2025 time frame, the study contemplates restoring rail service, rebuilding and double-tracking rail on the bridge, providing rail service first to Newark, and then to Union City.

Eventually, with capacity increases on the Caltrain corridor, the trains could be interlined with Caltrain trains heading north and south, for a transfer-free ride. Also in the longer-term, the study envisions regional connections to ACE and Capitol Corridor, facilitating megaregion commute connections.

The cost for the rail improvements would be in the range of an additional $1Billion, with a total ridership of over ~23,000 daily riders.

Bus and rail, but no bike and pedestrian trail

A concept proposed earlier in the Dumbarton study was to use some of the land right-of-way for a bicycle and pedestrian trail connection connecting from Redwood City and North Fair Oaks through Belle Haven/Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

The study concludes that the trail would require bike/pedestrian overpasses at Willow, Marsh, University, and US-101, at a cost of $60Million.

But the study recommends against this bike-pedestrian trail.

One reason given is insufficient right-of-way. If we understand correctly, study proposes in the medium-to-longer-term to steer buses onto the land right-of-way, side-by-side with trains.   If the 100-foot ROW is used for buses and trains, this crowds out the ability to have a bike and pedestrian trail as well.

Because regional transportation computer models include the ability to forecast car and transit use, but not bike use, SamTrans was unable to use these models to predict bicycle commuting, and didn’t take bikes into account in their goals of improving mobility and reducing congestion.

The study does not consider bicycling as a commute mode, even though there is robust recent data from nearby Stanford and Google showing a 20% to 30% bicycle commute mode share for people who live within 5-10 miles of their workplace.

By ignoring these robust new information sources, the study favors long-distance commuters and neglects an opportunity for sizeable mode shift among shorter-distance commuters – a distance that studies from Stanford and sources show provides a great temptation for commuters to drive.

A bicycle and pedestrian trail would also provide health and recreation benefits for local residents.  The trail connect to the soon-to-be-constructed missing link of the Bay Trail, which will create a continuous connection from Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to the South Bay, and would be part of a regional network of trails from the hills to the bay, according to comments from representatives of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District and Peninsula Open Space Trust at the board meeting.

Multi-modal vision and puzzlements

In wrapping up the presentation to the SamTrans board, General Manager Hartnett explained that the Dumbarton proposals, using bus, rail, and high-occupancy toll lanes, are an example of the agency transforming itself to be a multi-modal mobility provider, not only a bus agency. This perspective is visionary and welcome.

But there are a number of puzzling issues in the way that the study recommendations consider the use of multiple modes together.

The study contemplates using bus and rail in parallel, making the case that the bus routes would serve different customers than the train routes.

Using bus and rail in parallel is very different from the strategy used in Seattle, where light rail extensions have been accompanied by reconfiguring the bus network to remove segments that duplicated the light rail, to add bus feeder connections to the light rail, and to integrate the fare system for convenient multi-modal travel.  Using bus and rail in parallel is also very different from a proposal floated by private operator Leo Express, offering to revive rail service on the Dumbarton rail bridge and land right of way, and to provide bus feeder connections to and from key origins and destinations with seamless transfers and ticketing.

If SamTrans used these network models instead, then the land right-of-way would be needed only for one transit mode, and there would be room for a bike and pedestrian trail to provide a strong short-distance commute connection, and health and recreation benefits for the local communities.

Also, if the land right of way is to be used in part for buses, what benefit does the freeway-izing of Highway 84 have for transit ridership, as opposed to the solo drivers and carpoolers. Wouldn’t the transit benefits be gleaned from bus-only flyovers to and from the dedicated transit right-of-way?

Rail ridership puzzlement

If we are reading correctly, SamTrans is forecasting ~21,300 daily transbay riders from a suite of bus improvements, and ~23,300 daily transbay riders when rail is added for another billion dollars. The timeline and roadmap on the slides are somewhat confusing.

If this is the case, then a billion dollars seems to generate only 2,000 additional riders. And if so, why is SamTrans recommending the rail project?

Mode share questions

Currently, the Dumbarton bridge sees about 80,000 average daily vehicle trips.  Stanford, which charges for parking, subsidizes transit and carpool use, and provides great commuter support, sees about 50% of its East Bay commuters driving alone, while other employers see closer to 80% of East Bay commuters driving alone.

With the combination of transit and express lanes, how close does SamTrans’ proposal come to replicating Stanford’s mode share success today?  Are there additional program steps, working with transportation management associations in corridor cities, and adding a trail connection for shorter commutes, that could enable the public system to replicate and even surpass Stanford’s 50% mode share success?

Ridership growth justifies investment

The study projects 23,000+ riders by 2035, an outcome more worthy of investment than the 6-7,000 riders predicted in the unreleased study a decade ago. The corridor improvements seem substantially more promising than the just-released Environmental Impact Report for the BART Livermore project, predicting 7,900 riders by 2040.

Rapid review schedule

SamTrans has scheduled two public meetings on back-to-back dates in August, an East Bay meeting in Union City and a West Bay meeting in East Palo Alto.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017
6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Union City Library
34007 Alvarado-Niles Road, Union City, CA 94587

Wednesday, August 16, 2017
6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
East Palo Alto Library/City Hall
Community Room
2415 University Avenue, East Palo Alto, CA 94303

Following the public meetings, SamTrans plans to bring the feedback back to the board for a decision at its board meeting in October. At the board meeting, staff also said that the timing to bring the plan back to the board for decisions will be dependent on comments received.

At the board meeting, representatives of multiple community groups asked for more time to review these consequential proposals. The full report, with detailed supporting data and assumptions, is expected to be published on August 15 – right before the two scheduled public meetings, which won’t give residents and stakeholders time to read the report before attending the meetings.

This complex, multi-dimensional program will benefit from attentive evaluation from multiple perspectives – transit planning, roadway options and congestion relief, megaregion, regional, and local travel, health and recreation, place quality and neighborhood experience.