All aboard? Residents say plans for commuter trains through their backyards are off track, but proponents insist they're good for the environment and regional transit
For Bay Area transit proponents, a new commuter train running across the Bay would be a dream come true.
That dream is moving closer to reality with Dumbarton Rail, a train service in the making since the 1980s that would transport several thousand East Bay residents across the old Dumbarton swing bridge. By late 2012, commuters could board trains that would dash over the Bay through East Palo Alto and Menlo Park before connecting to the Caltrain line in Redwood City and shooting up and down the Peninsula.
The old Dumbarton tracks, which run between Bay Road at U.S. 101 through Menlo Park, would be refurbished, and the swing bridge — unused since 1982 and damaged by a fire in 1998 — would be rebuilt.
The system would run 12 trains — six in the morning from the East Bay to the Peninsula, and six back to the East Bay at night. Once the trains hit the Caltrain tracks, six would head north to San Francisco, and six would head south to San Jose.
The price tag is an estimated $595 million, but transit proponents say it's worth it: The project would lead to a decrease in local traffic, ease auto congestion on the Dumbarton Bridge, and cut Bay Area greenhouse gas emissions.
But even though Menlo Park is waist-deep in a fervent push to address global warming at the local level and get people out of their cars, the city isn't on board Dumbarton Rail — not yet, at least.
The project triggers moans and groans from residents who live in the Lorelei Manor, Suburban Park and Belle Haven neighborhoods, many of whom have homes ranging from 40 feet to several hundred feet from the tracks.
Neighbors say the potential noise, vibration and air pollution generated by diesel trains rumbling some 40 feet from their bedroom windows would gravely impact their property values and overall quality of life.
Neighbors have publicly called for light rail, electric trains, or even a bus system in place of heavy rail trains rumbling through Menlo Park, and have ticked off regional transportation advocates with their demands.
"Every time we have questions or concerns, we get labeled NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) residents that are trying to stop this project," said Susan Robinson, who lives in Suburban Park. "We're not saying no to transit in this corridor, we're just saying it needs to be done right. ... We're in favor of public transit, even if it's behind our neighborhoods, but it has to make sense."
Ms. Robinson represents the city on the Dumbarton Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of area residents studying the project, and longtime Dumbarton Rail supporters aren't thrilled with the critique Ms. Robinson and others have given the project.
"I think Menlo Park's residents' concerns aren't all that serious," said Art Lloyd of Portola Valley, a member of the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, one of two deciding bodies on the project. "The amount of pollutants is negligible compared to what cars will produce, and the impacts that should be addressed, will be addressed."
But Menlo Park residents aren't satisfied with the promise that state transit groups will address the impacts of trains on local neighborhoods — they want to see money put aside for mitigations such as sound walls, double-paned windows, quiet zones, or even grade separations.
Projected costs for the project have nearly doubled since 2004 from $300 million to $595 million due to ballooning construction and materials costs, leaving the state (which is funding the project through various transportation agencies) $295 million short of paying for the project. The bulk of the funding that has been collected is from Regional Measure 2, a toll increase for Bay Area bridges passed in 2004.
Menlo Park neighbors are concerned that mitigating the impacts of the train on surrounding neighborhoods won't happen if the state doesn't have the money.
"I don't think they have a budget for a set of earplugs, (let alone) double-paned windows or sound walls," said Jon Hazard, a Suburban Park resident. His concerns are shared by council members.
"There is a deficiency in getting people from the East Bay to the Peninsula," said Councilman Richard Cline. "But if you're not going to tell us where the money's going to come from, then you're off to a really bad start. It's not going to get my support."
Steve Minden, the project manager for Caltrain, said the potential impacts on Menlo Park homes will be analyzed in an environmental impact report that is under way.
"Neighbors have valid concerns, and those will be addressed," Mr. Minden said. "If I had a house that was 40 feet from the tracks, I'm sure I'd be concerned too, but we will be doing noise and vibration studies that are tried and true."
He noted that the environmental studies will include potential impacts of freight trains running along the tracks — something he said is a possibility, although Union Pacific Railroad has shown no interest in using the tracks to transport freight across the Bay.
Councilman John Boyle said all potential impacts on residents need to be looked at closely, especially if longer, louder, freight trains could be cutting through Menlo Park at all hours of the night.
"Anything we can do to get people out of their cars and onto public transit is a good thing, but without at least some minimal mitigations, we should do what we can to block this," Mr. Boyle said.
He noted that a Dumbarton station planned for Willow Road may draw businesses to Menlo Park.
Other council members have questioned whether the project would provide much in the way of benefits to Menlo Park.
"Menlo Park will take very large impacts, but look at the train configuration — Menlo Park isn't going to benefit that much at all," said Councilman Heyward Robinson. "Unless you're working nights in Fremont, Menlo Park residents won't be riding these trains."
Councilman Andy Cohen took Mr. Robinson's point a step further: He said he wouldn't support the project "under any circumstances" because the impacts outweigh the benefits.
But transit proponents say Menlo Park residents aren't considering the regional transit and environmental benefits when it comes to Dumbarton Rail, and if council members are serious about curbing global warming, they need to support the project.
"Here you have Menlo Park council members on a so-called progressive, environmentalist council, opposed to this project," said Sue Lempert, a former San Mateo councilwoman, and a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "Part of being a City Council member is putting on your regional hat, and thinking about what's best for the broader community. ... I just hope they don't try and sabotage the project."
In the coming weeks, Menlo Park council members are expected to sign off on a list of concerns about the project that will be sent to Ms. Lempert and other members of the Dumbarton Policy Committee — a group of public officials assisting Caltrain in planning the project.
Mr. Robinson represents San Mateo County on the committee, and said it's clear that the bulk of the members are more concerned with getting the project built than how it will impact Menlo Park.
"I don't agree you have to support this hell or high water," he said. "If someone has questions about this project, it doesn't mean they don't care about transit or the environment. We have precious transit dollars that are available, and we have to use them wisely. We have to ask ourselves if this is really a good use of $600 million."
But former Menlo Park councilman Steve Schmidt said residents and council members are "nitpicking" the project apart when they should be endorsing it since it meets the city's goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The city, he said, "should be actively supporting actual projects that give commuters an alternative to driving their cars to and through every day.
"Let's not study and split hairs in the hopes that Menlo Park will drive the visionaries away. ... You have to respect your constituents' views, but you can't go down impractical paths to satisfy them."
Ms. Lempert said she is sympathetic to Menlo Park residents' concerns, but they should trust the state to build a transit system that is good for Menlo Park and the greater Bay Area.
"When it comes to transportation projects, you always have objections, and you always have money problems, but eventually they always get done because they're important," she said. "Necessary projects get built and this will get built."
A greener train?
But amid all of the global warming talk, Menlo Park residents and council members have questioned why a "greener" system isn't proposed for Dumbarton Rail.
Caltrain is expected to start using electric trains by 2014, and residents said quieter, more environmentally friendly electric trains should be considered for the Dumbarton line as well — a notion pushed by Mayor Kelly Fergusson.
"We deserve the best, ecological project possible," said Henry Riggs, a resident of the Lorelei Manor neighborhood. "I think we can get Dumbarton to be a lighter, more effective system."
Mr. Minden said any form of public transit has a significantly smaller environmental impact than forcing commuters to drive across the Dumbarton Bridge.
"The most-antiquated technology is still way better as far as impacts on the environment," he said. "It gets people out of their cars, and reduces air pollution and congestion."
Jonah Weinberg, a spokesman for Caltrain, said electrification isn't on the table due to high costs, but said it is being considered for farther down the road. He was unsure how much more electrification would cost, but noted diesel trains would still be compatible with the Caltrain tracks when electric trains start running up and down the Peninsula.
Residents have also questioned whether ridership projections prove the project is worth the $600 million price tag.
A right-of-way dispute in the East Bay, coupled with high costs may restrict the project, when initially built, to reaching only as far Newark, rather than also running through Fremont and Union City.
If the train doesn't connect to Union City, there will be no direct connection to BART, lowering short- and long-term ridership projections.
Mr. Minden said under the Newark to Redwood City plan, 2,100 people are expected to take round trips on Dumbarton Rail each day if it opens by 2012, and that number would increase to 3,650 riders by 2030.
Under the full-length plan to connect to Union City, ridership would be 3,150 and 6,400 riders a day in 2012 and 2030, respectively, he said.
Mr. Weinberg said if the 25 percent ridership increase in Caltrain's service along the Peninsula over the past four years is any indication of things to come, ridership on Dumbarton Rail should also increase dramatically over time.
The fluctuating ridership numbers have Mr. Robinson concerned.
"If there aren't going to be as many people riding these trains as they thought, and they're still predicting with this that the Dumbarton Bridge will be congested, that would be a failure," he said.