Dumbarton Rail assessment moving forward: East Bay Connections murky, West Bay trail more likely

A few more details about the likely shape of a Dumbarton Rail project were previewed in stakeholder group presentation, setting the stage for upcoming public meetings in July, when the project team is planning to host scoping meeting for the legally required environmental review.  The project is being run by Crossbay Transit Partners, a public-private partnership with Facebook, Plenary Group (a P3 specialist) and SamTrans the public owner of the right of way.

East Bay Connections murky

The project plans to follow the SamTrans rail right of way from Redwood City through North Fair Oaks, the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, across a rebuilt rail bridge to Newark, and then (somehow) making connections to East Bay rail (BART, ACE, Capitol Corridor).

The East Bay connections are uncertain because Union Pacific owns the standard gauge rail tracks from Newark to Fremont, Union Pacific has a reputation of being hard to reach and negotiate with at the best of times, and the company has recently had major layoffs, adding to the challenges of working with the freight giant. The project is considering choices to share and potentially expand tracks along the UP right of way, or possibly to use surface arterials.

A parallel study has been commissioned by MTC and Alameda County Transportation Commission for South Alameda County Rail station hubs . Also, meanwhile, Capitol Corridor is considering a Newark/Ardenwood station as part of its proposed move to a Coast route. It is not clear how those studies will connect with this one.

Dumbarton Crossbay Map

Station locations up in the air

On the West Bay side, there are expected to be stations at Redwood City and Facebook/Willow Road.  The diagrams included a station option at Marsh Road (which got favorable comments from some residents at earlier public meetings) but not a station at North Fair Oaks (which was considered a possibility in earlier planning).  Project team members said that they would be open to considering additional station options such as North Fair Oaks, and that would be a reasonable thing to ask to study in the environmental review. On the East Bay side station locations are murky because the route itself is unclear.

The Redwood City station location decision will be closely related to land use and engineering decisions about Redwood City’s downtown.  Potential locations include the site of a car-centric retail strip shopping area anchored by Safeway and a site currently used for Caltrain parking.

Caltrain has identified Redwood City as the most important location for potential passing tracks that would allow substantial increases in service frequency and corridor capacity, which would also be needed to make Dumbarton connections. And Redwood City is about to engage in the next stage of planning for its downtown which is likely to include questions about the area near the station currently occupied by surface parking.

West Bay Trail more likely

The presentation suggested pedestrian/bike trail alongside the train on the West Bay right of way was increasingly likely. Cross-section diagrams showed a potential trail alongside the train. Engineering staff stated confidently that the project was considering only one transit mode on the right of way, and no longer considering including trains and buses side by side in the right of way, leaving more room for a potential traill

Advocates for walking, bicycling, and local West Bay communities have been advocating for the West Bay land right of way to include a pedestrian/bike trail connecting from East Palo Alto to Redwood City, similar to the trail alongside the SMART train in Marin/Sonoma.  A trail would benefit local transportation and recreation, in a project that provides major benefits for long-distance travellers.

When SamTrans conducted its Dumbarton Corridor study, published in 2017, the report recommended including both trains and buses on the right of way to serve different markets, especially because it was expected to be very difficult to make timely feeder connections.  But the project team has ruled that out, making a trail more likely.

Technology still TBD, electric rail with battery last mile under consideration

Standard gauge rail, electrified with polls and wires, is shown in the sample illustrations, although the project team says that multiple options are under still consideration. Interestingly, project engineering staff said that one option they were considering was to use poles and wires for the segment of tracks that SamTrans owns, and to run on batteries for the last 4 miles between Newark and Fremont or Union City, to address the objections of Union Pacific against running freight trains beneath electric wires. This is a potentially clever compromise solution, since maturing battery technology may not yet be up for moving large commuter trains for 15 miles between Redwood City and Fremont/UC, but is more likely to be feasible for the last 4 miles from Newark to Fremont/UC.

The project team expressed a strong interest in clean technology, but didn’t clearly commit to a fossil-fuel-free solution.

Schedule and fare coordination?

In response to questions about schedule and fare coordination to streamline passenger trips, project team members indicated that this wouldn’t be considered until much later stages.  However, it seems logical that the ridership of the system would vary significantly if a trip to/from Tracy took 90 minutes or 2+ hours.

In parts of the world with well-coordinated transit, the passengers’ end-to-end time and cost of the trip would be planned from the start, instead of planning regional routes segment by segment without planning the connections.  The State Rail Plan called for an approach to speed end to end trips through timed connections at hub stations, using state funding as leverage – this project can be a good test as to whether this approach can be put into place.

The Public Private Partnership for Funding

An important milestone is expected to be the financial feasibility analysis for the private partner, which needs to make money for them to take the project.

The Crossbay staff indicated that the funding mix for the project would likely be different that commonly assumed for P3 projects, which typically assume 80% public funding and 20% private funding. This project is starting with an assumption that the proportions to be reversed, with the bulk of funding coming from private partners and a minority from the public sector.  The funding and financing model will be based on both capital and operating, amortized over a long time period.

Highly ambitious schedule

The project team is on a highly ambitious schedule. The next upcoming step is the “Notice of Preparation” for the Environmental Impact Report that is required under the California Environmental Quality Act. This is a legally required process where a project needs to ask community members about topics that must be studied in an Environmental Impact Report, and the results must be publicly disclosed.  So EIR scoping is a helpful and important opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions about the scope of the project.

The schedule anticipates construction starting as early as Q4 of 2021.  This timeline assumes permits granted by an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies by Q3 2021, a pace that experienced local infrastructure watchers observe to be unprecedented.  When the Memorandum of Understanding between SamTrans and Crossbay last summer, the initial term of the agreement was proposed to be 18 months, with optional extensions, so the project is moving ahead rapidly but not as rapidly as the earliest assumptions.