A stalled plan to run commuter trains across a rebuilt Dumbarton rail bridge is moving forward again, though supporters still must fill a daunting $400 million funding gap before the long-planned project can be built.
The roughly $700 million project involves rebuilding and upgrading the deteriorated rail corridor just south of the Dumbarton Bridge and building three new stations in Menlo Park, Newark and Union City, providing a new transit link between Caltrain on the Peninsula and BART and Altamont Commuter Express trains in the East Bay.
Earlier this month, the Dumbarton Policy Advisory Committee, made up of elected officials from three counties, directed planners to finish the environmental review and engineering for the project after the work had been on hold for almost a year.
When the cost of the project ballooned from earlier estimates of a couple hundred million, the planning team with the San Mateo County Transportation Authority told the officials that its prospects “didn’t look so good,” said Marian Lee, executive officer for planning and development.
“The ridership was low, and the cost grew because of the additional engineering work we had done on the rail bridge,” Lee said.
As a result, the team retooled its ridership model, she said. By making service more frequent — every 15 minutes instead of once an hour — they were able to double earlier projections, to 6,000 to 8,600 daily riders by 2035, Lee said.
With a draft environmental document expected in July, officials still have to come up with a viable funding plan. They have identified around $350 million in capital funding, though it’s unclear when at least $130 million of those funds would be available, Lee said.
That leaves a hole of at least $400 million, though supporters say finalizing the engineering and environmental studies will help attract more funding. Other potential sources include bridge toll funds and the renewal of an Alameda County transportation measure.
“If you don’t study it, there’s no chance,” said Andy Chow, president of the Bay Rail Alliance, which supports the plans.
For Jim Bigelow, who has been advocating the project since the late 1980s, the rail project is a “very logical system” for reducing traffic and carbon emissions.
“It can operate at 79 miles per hour and get people out of their cars and get them to work faster and more pleasantly,” said Bigelow, a member of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce board.
Bigelow has never given up on the project, even as it looked as though it was going to be put on the shelf for good a year ago.
“Somebody has to be a friend of a missing link in the Bay Area system,” he said.
Connects: San Mateo and Alameda counties between Newark and East Palo Alto
Total length: 1.6 miles
Clearance: 85 feet
Opened: Original structure, January 1927; replacement structure, 1982
Total toll paid vehicles, 2009-10: 8.75 million
Auto toll: $5
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission
Dumbarton rail milestones
1908: Central Pacific Railway constructs Dumbarton Rail Corridor, the first bridge crossing of the San Francisco Bay.
1910: Sept. 12: Freight commences service on the bridge.
1982: Last freight train crosses Dumbarton Rail bridge before Southern Pacific discontinues service on the bridge.
1994: Dumbarton Rail idea is proposed when the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA), with assistance from Caltrans, purchases the old rail bridge from Southern Pacific for $6.9 million.
1995: Caltrain does an initial study of the rail bridge and the feasibility of a commuter rail line.
1998: January: The 88-year-old wooden western trestle is completely destroyed by fire. Arson is suspected.
2000: November: Santa Clara County voters pass Measure A, a half-cent sales tax that is to provide $40 million to fund Dumbarton Rail.
2001: February: Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board unanimously approves Caltrain to serve as the operator for the Dumbarton rail service, provided that other agencies cover all the funding for fixing the rail bridge and tracks, and for operating the trains.
2004: February: Project study report completed
March: Voters in six Bay Area counties approve Regional Measure 2, which is to provide key funding for Dumbarton Rail service, including capital and operation costs.
Source: Bay Rail Alliance