Dumbarton rail back on track, funding shortageBy Bonnie Eslinger
San Mateo County officials have revived a plan to restore the Dumbarton rail bridge for commuter train service between the Peninsula and East Bay, saying funding and ridership look promising for the $700 million transportation project.
One of the key challenges the project faces, however, may be skepticism. In the works for decades, the Dumbarton Rail Corridor has struggled with funding shortages and opposition from residents in cities including Menlo Park, through which the rail line would travel.
Today, a subcommittee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will review the project during an update of its bridge toll-supported capital spending program. The project, however, has been classified as a "risk" because it still has funding shortfalls and its scope is still being developed.
Marian Lee, executive officer of planning and development for SamTrans, said enough funding has been either secured, identified or appeared on the horizon to proceed with a study of the project's environmental impacts. A draft of the report is scheduled to be released in July.
Getting a plan in place will increase the Dumbarton Rail Corridor's chances of succeeding, Lee said. With the commission, "the more you know about a project, and the more solid a funding plan is," the better chance it has of getting financial support, she said.
Roughly $348 million in funding for the project has been identified, according to SamTrans documents,including $97 million from the agency itself. It will also likely get back $91 million that was reassigned to BART in January 2009.
Alameda County officials have also indicated they would seek funding for the project through a planned reauthorization of the Measure B transportation improvement program, Lee said.
"It's not a sure thing," Lee said. "(But) Alameda County very much supports this project."
The newfound support for Dumbarton Rail is due in part to updated ridership projections, which show the line would attract 6,000 to 8,000 daily riders by 2035. That's up from earlier projections; SamTrans documents indicate the increase is based on the project's timeline, higher housing numbers anticipated by the Association of Bay Area Governments and a bridge toll increase that is encouraging commuters to ditch their cars.
Also, while a 2005 plan envisioned peak hour service from Union City to San Francisco and San Jose in the morning and back again in the evening, Lee said more options are on the table now, including hourly service in both directions.
Andy Chow, president of the Palo Alto-based BayRail Alliance, said he hopes the revived Dumbarton Rail project will pick up speed.
"There's a lot of demand from the East Bay to the Peninsula," he said. "Other than the Transbay Tube, this would be the only other Bay rail crossing."
The project, however, may face familiar opposition. Menlo Park Council Member Heyward Robinson, a member of SamTrans' Dumbarton Rail policy board, said he is not convinced refurbishing the rail bridge -- part of which was destroyed in a 1998 fire -- is the most cost-effective answer to congestion woes.
"Does this project make sense (to taxpayers) ... and during an economy of tight dollars?" Robinson asked.
As part of the environmental impact documents being prepared for the state and federal governments, SamTrans is also exploring project alternatives, including an express bus over the Dumbarton Bridge. The policy board reviewed that alternative Friday.
Known as "bus rapid transit" in transportation circles, the system might be cheaper and offer more benefits than commuter rail, which would require some riders to catch a bus to reach their final destination, Robinson said.
Copyright ©2010 Palo Alto Daily News. Published 11/10/2010.