Redwood City Transit Connections: Broadway Streetcar and Station Upgrades

Tonight,  Redwood City City Council will get an update on studies that looked at potential improvements to the downtown transit center, and the concept for a Broadway Streetcar. The agenda item is after a study session on the city’s strategic plan, so it is likely to be relatively late – if you want to comment in person, watch the meeting online and head over to City Council when it seems that the agenda item is nearing.

Station upgrades – Long term rail opportunities, short term bus improvements

In the medium to long-term, improvements to Redwood City Station – creating a 4-track passing area allowing much more frequent service –  could be the single most important project in terms of enabling higher rail ridership and congestion relief on the corridor, enabling up to 50,000 new transit riders, according to recent data in the Caltrain Business Plan.  The Caltrain business plan analysis includes information that seems to be a bit more recent than the information in the CDM Smith study about potential ridership benefits of Redwood City Station upgrades.  

The CDM study explores opportunities to move the station northward to improve public space and connections across the city.  However, it shows a rebuilt and upgraded station that continues to have at-grade crossings.

The passing tracks identified in the business plan would need to be integrated with grade separations, which could provide substantially better crosstown connections than the at-grade crossings shown in the Redwood City study. 

The Sequoia Station area currently occupied by large parking lots and strip mall style development has been included for a decade in the city’s downtown plan for potential walkable mixed use, urban-style redevelopment, and a developer has recently expressed interest.   Redeveloping the Safeway parking lot would create opportunities – and planning challenges – to integrate the elements together in a way that would expand walkable downtown Redwood City and evolve a car-centric area into a place with much more walking, bicycling, transit, and well-used public space.

Redwood City’s study of grade separation options will be moving forward in the coming year, as is Facebook/SamTrans Dumbarton Rail project, which would connect to downtown Redwood City at Sequoia station. Given these moving pieces, the report tonight is an interesting but already superceded look at a moving target.

Also interesting is the study’s suggestion to improve the bus area at Sequoia Station in the short term. The proposal is intended to be more efficient for the buses that need to make fewer turns than today’s design which requires buses to zigzag. The staff report notes that the curves can be designed to be feasible for bus turning.  The proposal in the study would allow better connections between trains and buses, and somewhat reduces conflicts between the path of buses and pedestrians.

We’re not so sure about plaza in the middle of the bus area. Since this is intended as a short-term proposal before the area may redevelop, the  area will still be a pedestrian-unfriendly strip mall, and we wonder how well-used the plaza would be.

Also, the illustration shows a road where the 4-track passing station might need to be. Hopefully Caltrain’s recent land use study has identified areas that are needed for rail service expansion and shouldn’t be built upon. 

Broadway Streetcar options

Back in the early 2000s when Redwood City was working on its General Plan including a major transformation of the downtown from “Deadwood City” into today’s much more pedestrian-friendly, prosperous, and gentrified area, the idea of a streetcar on Broadway was promoted as an opportunity to encourage transit use and development along the Broadway corridor, which extends 2 miles from the Caltrain station out to 5th and Broadway, past the Stanford in Redwood City office complex. The corridor has aging buildings that have the potential to be redeveloped, at a distance further from the downtown transit center than most people will walk.

Tonight’s presentation includes study results comparing alternatives, including two streetcar route options, and a rubber tire  “urban circulator”. The study concludes that the rail options would have somewhat higher ridership, at a price tag over $100 million greater in cost. 

Overall, the reputation of urban streetcars is that they have more benefit for real estate development than transportation value.  Given the transformation in Redwood City over the last 15 years, we doubt that a streetcar would be needed to attract developers these days, and $100 million seems like a high price tag for 300 to 500 extra riders.

Walnut Creek has had great success with its downtown “trolley” which is a County Connection bus route, with fancy livery and fares subsidized by the downtown’s business group.  This approach – with an electric bus for greater sustainability and cachet – could build ridership, and potentially be replaced with a streetcar eventually if ridership exceeds the capacity of a downtown shuttle.

We also wonder why the bus circulator route is 5 minutes slower than the streetcar. Is this because the rail is given dedicated right of way and the rubber tire vehicles are not? If so, then the initial solution could be giving dedicated right of way and signal priority to the buses, for more convenient service.