Guest opinion: Time to support Dumbarton Rail | June 6, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - June 6, 2007

Guest opinion: Time to support Dumbarton Rail

by Steve Schmidt

On March 14, 2007, Mayor Kelly Fergusson and City Council member Heyward Robinson held the first Green Cities Task Force meeting in Menlo Park. Hopes have been running high that these meetings will promote innovative and environmentally friendly policies on many issues, including public transit.

One of the Green Cities subcommittees is studying the Dumbarton rail extension which has been in the conceptual planning stages for over 10 years. Six commuter trains in the morning and six trains in the evening would run between the East Bay (Newark) and the Midpeninsula (Redwood City) where it would meet CalTrain. It is estimated that there would be between 5,000 to 7,000 rider-trips a day and that number could double in 10 years.

Not surprisingly, some residents object to the Dumbarton plan finally reaching our doors. Claims range from excessive cost, flawed ridership estimates, engine noise and crossing gate bells, vibration, automobile congestion caused by crossing gates, and the specter of freight trains using the line. Opponents have come in at the 11th hour to suggest that other options would be better.

Why not light rail, they ask? Maybe electrified trains? Wouldn't it be better to change one of the lanes on the existing Dumbarton Bridge to a commute lane or to consider bus rapid transit (BRT)? Some demand that budget-busting grade separations be included.

Most of these issues were raised in January of 2000 by then-mayor Mary Jo Borak in a letter sent to the representative of the Dumbarton Corridor Task Force. This letter is now being circulated as evidence that cooler heads were in charge and were protecting the interests of Menlo Park residents.

After 7.5 years of diligent efforts, much has been accomplished to move this project along. Ninety percent of the funding has been met thanks to San Mateo County voters. Mayor Borak's concerns voiced on behalf of the city were not forgotten and have been incorporated into the current environmental scoping and planning. The option of bus rapid transit instead of trains on the rail bridge has been shown to be as costly as trains but less appealing to new riders.

Train noise and vibration will be minimized by completely rebuilding the rail-bed and installing quieter continuous welded rail. Instead of separations, quiet-zone crossing gates can be installed that preclude the sounding of horns at at-grade crossings. No concern of Mayor Borak's has been ignored and the project now has every reason to succeed. What seems to be lacking in Menlo Park is sincere resolve.

The Dumbarton rail extension will benefit Menlo Park and the region. It is also consistent with the goal of reducing global warming. The city should not spend it's time and energy waxing poetic about reducing our carbon footprint while nitpicking the Dumbarton rail project to death. This quiet and disingenuous form of opposition has been going on for too long. Either we are players in the fight to reduce carbon emissions or we aren't. Here's an opportunity for Menlo Park to show our colors. Green or something else? Do we really care about the environment or will we let fear make our decisions?

Steve Schmidt was Menlo Park mayor in 1997 and 2002. He lives on Central Avenue in Menlo Park.


Posted by A Numbers Person, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 10, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Let's not be fooled by the "Public Transportation" label. The most recent ridership estimate presented to the public clearly stated that 5,600 TRIPS per day - not roundtrips. That's 2,800 people going to work and 2,800 people coming home. How much sense does it make to spend $600 MILLION dollars to build and countless millions to maintain a heavy rail system that will use HIGH POLLUTION, refurbished DIESEL trains for 2,800 people? Is THIS environmentally responsible? Is this FINACIALLY responsible? The cost per rider projections for this project are 10 times higher than what is considered acceptable for federally funded projects. There are other transportation projects in the Bay Area that are FAR more worthy of our dollars and will make a far greater impact on alleviating traffic.

Posted by Steve Schmidt, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 11, 2007 at 10:17 am

Here's an opportunity for Mr. or Ms. A Numbers Person to identify for us the "...other projects in the Bay Area that are FAR more worthy of our dollars and will make a far greater impact on alleviating traffic." What is your opinion?

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 11, 2007 at 11:31 am

Hi Steve,

Below are some web-sites to get you started on answering your question about
"...other projects in the Bay Area that are FAR more worthy of our dollars and will make a far greater impact on alleviating traffic." Although this statement may be hyperbole and I do need to learn much more about BRT, it does seem reasonable to be open to transit alternatives to rail projects (such as Dumbarton) and their enormous capital development costs and negative social impact. (Wikipedia has a long, informative and balanced discussion of BRT.)

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The basic point here is to make a critical distinction between “Rail” and “Transit.” The former is a sub-set of, not the entirety of, the latter. Rail advocates seem unable to see beyond the tracks. Rail is only one among several modalities for moving people. If I understand your position, you actually are an advocate for a comprehensive, inter-modal, urban transit network. I do know that you understand that to get people out of cars, there needs to be a more convenient, more cost/effective, more affordable, door-to-door way of getting around. If you get people to give up their car-gene by replacing it with a rail-gene, you have merely crippled peoples’ ability travel.

There are many “sins” connected to the Dumbarton proposal. Not the least is the dishonesty about the real costs. The present projection of $600 million (which they don’t have) is a typical low-ball number. (Bay Bridge? Homer tunnel? Transbay terminal? Boston "Big Dig"?)

We have heard about the condition of the existing rail bridge. Will a retro-fit meet CPUC and FRA standards for seismic impact? Will they discover, to their amazement, that the bridge will have to come down and a new one built? What do you suppose the price for that would be?

Posted by Green and Thoughtful, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 11, 2007 at 9:28 pm

As a resident of Suburban Park, the Dumbarton Rail will drectly affect me, but I can say that I would not be objecting to the project if it were clean technology useful to the whole region, or even simply to any people living on the Penninsula, but it's not. Why couldn't money go to a direct extension of BART circling the bay? That would make sense. I could even use the system if that were proposed.
The Dumbarton Rail is for East Bay residents to come here to work in the morning then return in the evening, with no commuter help for those who travel to the east bay for work (or anywhere else, for that matter). All 6 trains originate in the east bay, come here, then return in the evening. Do we really need to spend $600 million to accomplish that meager reduction in Dumbarton Bridge traffic? Don't hide behind a "green" shield, Mr. Schmidt. I, too, want mass transit that helps our environment, but this isn't it. This is heavy deisel rail. This is polluting black smoke technology that was developed over 100 years ago. This is taxpayer money earmarked for transit going to subsidize an upgrade of a freight line. When ridership is low, they will cry about needing more revenue and allow all kinds of freight traffic use of this "public transit" system. This is not what I voted for in 2004 on measure 2! Can you not see you are being used by Union Pacific? Have you not asked yourself why they oppose at least electrification of the line? Perhaps because lighter rail would not be compatible with freight traffic?
Let's find some useful clean alternatives not taxpayer fraud and waste. Whatever systems are built, where ever they may be, they need to be clean technology that is useful for transit by many many thousands of people. That I would support in my own back yard.

Posted by also green, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 12, 2007 at 10:22 am

I'm really trying to figure out how the proposed DBR helps Menlo Park residents, in addition to employers, if the trains only bring people TO Menlo Park in the AM and take them AWAY in the afternoon. What about people who live here and need to go to the east bay in the AM?

The bigger issues are those Engel raises - having a public transit system that really works all the way between home and destination. BART is not the answer, either, as it does a poor job connecting to other modes of transportation to help people get somewhere. And if anyone in Menlo Park needs to get between here and San Francisco, it would be a joke to use BART. Its route is quite circuitous and very time-consuming already - just from Millbrae. If one likes the train, CalTrain is much more direct and quick even though its schedules keep getting worse for boarding within Menlo Park. When BART runs more directly between desired points A and B, it runs more frequently than CalTrain but people make transit decisions on elapsed time, flexibility, and price.
Why is it that the estimate for bus transit over Dumbarton comes out more expensive than train? It seems as if the bus estimate includes train tracks, not solely buses. As for the argument about buses not being as attractive as trains to ride, can't we learn from the "executive" buses that AC Transit and Google run? People do ride those!

Posted by Al Neiman, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jul 14, 2007 at 12:59 am

Have a solution that alleviates many of the noise, pollution and vibration issues. Use a diesel hybrid power light rail. Technology for this approach is here now. A small diesel operating at a constant RPM recharges the batteries. Both power units are used when accelerating out of stations and the diesel can be turned off when cruising thru heavily populated neighborhoods to reduce noise level. If the bridge is retrofitted for the weight of light rail only the cost be reduced and the fear of freight use goes away.