Dumbarton Update: Facebook considers light rail on city streets due to challenges negotiating with Union Pacific

Facebook disclosed more information about the options it is considering for Dumbarton Rail at a community meeting on Tuesday October 1, at Fair Oaks Health Center. The meeting was intended to be a small outreach session oriented toward local North Fair Oaks residents, hosted by Supervisor Warren Slocum.  The meeting included some new insights on the trajectory and challenges of the project planning. 

As Dumbarton followers recall, planning for a renewed Dumbarton high capacity public transit service is being conducted by Facebook and their partners, Plenary Group, a firm that specializes in public-private partnerships for transportation, using the name Crossbay Transit Partners

Facebook’s Head of Regional Transportation Strategy, Winsome Bowen, presented on the project and handled a lengthy Q&A with community members. She was introduced by Casey Fromson (Caltrain/SamTrans Director of Government & Community Affairs). Several current and former North Fair Oaks Community Council members were in attendance, as was Redwood City Council Member Janet Borgens, from the Friendly Acres neighborhood close to NFO.

Bowen reported that Facebook is finding it a challenge negotiating with the Union Pacific freight rail company to agree to allow Dumbarton passenger trains to use their track and/or right of way to access Union City BART.  The Samtrans-owned right of way ends just before the track wye in Newark, and the continuing tracks to Union City BART are owned by UP.

In light of this, Bowen said that Facebook and their partners are looking at whether to work with Union City to use some type of light rail-like train that can reach Union City BART via a completely new right of way on or along city streets.

Bowen said the “base case” is to use Caltrain-like commuter/heavy rail trains with a travel speed of up to 90 mph in the straightaway across the Bay, but this use of city streets to reach UC BART would require some lighter and newer technology with top speeds more like 30mph.

A Union City Light Rail option would also likely exclude connection to Fremont’s Centerville ACE station, which is seeing transit-oriented development. (The Capitol Corridor has longer-range plans to shift to the line past Ardenwood in Newark, so the Capitol Corridor connection would be at Ardenwood, not Centerville).

Bowen reported that replacing the bridge is the most expensive part of the project and that they are still working with the governing agencies to determine what would be an acceptable replacement (e.g. how high must it be to preserve maritime navigation, which is a legal requirement from the federal government). Bowen also noted that the team is considering bicycle infrastructure across the corridor, including the new/rebuilt transbay rail bridge.

Bowen mentioned that Facebook/Crossbay are assuming at least three West Bay grade separations will be required at University Avenue, Willow Road and Marsh Road. She mentioned the Willow station could be elevated over the road providing station access to both sides of Willow.

In assessing the project, Facebook/Crossbay are evaluating the potential for ridership. Bowen observed that the communities along the line – North Fair Oaks, Belle Haven, Newark, Union City, are relatively low density, raising questions about potential ridership. It is not clear how closely the team is looking at the Dumbarton crossing as a commute path for beyond Union City to the Tri-Valley area and even the far side of Altamont Pass, with BART and ACE and Capitol Corridor as feeder services. A concern about a light rail connection is whether it could accommodate ACE & Caltrain type heavy rail trains for purposes of future connections and interlining.

Presenting the timetable, Bowen said they’re looking to complete the entire formal environmental study process inside of 24 months, which appears longer than the timetable forecast a year ago, but still rapid by the standards of Bay Area major projects which commonly take 4-5 years.

Audience questions and feedback focused on having a station at or near Middlefield Road to serve North Fair Oaks and including land that has newly been upzoned. The North Fair Oaks residents in attendance strongly supported a North Fair Oaks station in addition to or instead of a station at Marsh Road, and were concerned that that the maps in the presentation showed a station at Marsh but not in North Fair Oaks. In earlier meetings, Facebook had shared that the location of a station between Redwood City and Menlo Park/Willow was up for discussion and not decided.

Regional and state voices missing

As Facebook wrestles with the challenges of how to connect transbay tracks on the Dumbarton Corridor to regional and megaregional hubs with BART, ACE and Capitol Corridor, the study commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Alameda County Transportation Commission to explore Southern Alameda County transit hubs is nowhere to be seen (please let us know if it has surfaced somewhere and we missed it).

And, as Facebook wrestles with the multi-billion freight rail giant Union Pacific for options to use their tracks or right way, we wonder where the State of California is (or should be) in the mix. It is the State that is negotiating with UP for a blended system agreement to enable electric Caltrain and High Speed Rail service on UP’s tracks from Tamien in San Jose to Gilroy.

There are probably ways to offer benefits for Union Pacific in exchange for passenger service on the right of way to Union City, for example adding grade separations at Fremont Blvd and in Newark; or even other improvements that Union Pacific is seeking elsewhere in the state.

Given the regional and megaregional value of a Dumbarton Rail connection, it is puzzling why a social media company and its private partner should have the responsibility to negotiate with a national freight rail giant.

Also, given the potential regional and megaregional value of a high-speed trip for long-distance travellers, it is puzzling why the financial return needs of a private transportation project development company should be be able to set infrastructure decisions (like fast heavy rail or slow light rail) that have the potential to maximize or constrain the longterm ridership potential of the corridor and its longer-distance connections.

Public/private partnerships can be helpful in bringing initiative, innovation and funding to public projects, but it does not make sense to put the full burden of regional and state programs on private partners working on specific segments.

We just learned that this Friday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will be hearing an agenda item proposing the consideration of a regional entity that could be in charge of planning and delivering big, regionally significant rail projects. We hope this moves forward because there is something clearly missing in the ability of the region to plan and deliver such projects.

Update: for ideas and proposals on how the region could be doing a much better job of planning regionally significant projects, see this blog post from Seamless Bay Area.

Reporting for this post was contributed by Adrian Brandt, Redwood City resident and longtime transit advocate.