The dust has settled, and round one in a fight for scarce Bay Area transit dollars goes to Dumbarton Rail supporters.
The final decision on the proposed $91 million transfer is up to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which is expected to vote on the issue in September.
At the July 22 meeting, committee members' emotions ran high and speeches ran long, as the $91 million question pitted devout BART supporters against others who said that taking funds from Dumbarton Rail — even on a temporary basis — would delay, and effectively kill, efforts to get the estimated $600 million cross-Bay train built.
As proposed, six trains a day would take commuters from the East Bay to the Peninsula via a new bridge before connecting to the Dumbarton line through East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The trains would hit the Caltrain tracks in Redwood City, where three would head north toward San Francisco, and three would head south toward San Jose. Trains would return to the East Bay in the evening. The project was originally slated to be built by 2012, but that timeline is looking less likely.
"If we lose the $91 million, this project is going to be dead, in my opinion," said committee member Sue Lempert, who also represents the cities of San Mateo County on the MTC.
The $91 million is available by means of Regional Measure 2 (RM-2), the 2004 ballot measure that raised tolls on seven Bay Area bridges to improve traffic flow across the Bay. Ms. Lempert, other committee members, and 10 of the 12 public speakers at the meeting said that funds originally intended to improve cross-Bay travel should remain dedicated to cross-Bay projects.
"I'm not comfortable with the BART-to-Warm Springs proposal," said committee member and Menlo Park Councilman Heyward Robinson, who labeled BART a "black hole" that "sucks up" transit dollars. "In general, BART is the most expensive [form of transit as far as dollars per passenger mile."
Others to express reservations about lending Dumbarton Rail funds to BART included Fran Dehn, president of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce; Linda Craig, a spokesperson for the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County; and Alex Kobayashi, a spokesperson for state Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City.
The strong opposition to the $91 million transfer didn't sit well with the committee's BART supporters.
"I don't see anything wrong with this exchange of funding," said BART director and committee member Tom Blalock. He noted that extending BART service to Warm Springs is a key step toward the bigger goal of connecting the system to San Jose.
BART supporters stressed that Dumbarton Rail's ballooning cost (from $300 million to $600 million in recent years), wavering ridership projections, and need for additional right of way from the Union Pacific Railroad, make it a longer-term project. They said plans to extend BART to Warm Springs are set, but the project needs more funds.
"Nobody's saying that Dumbarton Rail isn't important, but Dumbarton Rail should wait its turn," said Alameda County Supervisor and committee member Scott Haggerty, who was visibly irked by Mr. Robinson's description of BART as a black hole. Mr. Haggerty, who is also an MTC board member, said that by flat-out rejecting transferring the funds, the committee showed an unwillingness to negotiate, and may end up losing the money with no concessions.
"This motion will go nowhere," he said of the committee's vote.
Fighting for dollars
Transit agencies and politicians often push the need to address transit issues regionally, but Margaret Okuzumi, executive director of the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Bay Rail Alliance, said that when limited transit dollars are up for grabs, officials tend to push "pet projects" rather than think on a regional level.
"There's a huge funding shortfall for transportation overall, including public transit projects," Ms. Okuzumi said. "There's never been a good regional decision-making process by which projects are vetted, so it all gets very political. ... MTC is made up of these local representatives, and they're not too eager to support someone else's project, since they all have to protect their own projects."
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