Issue date: February 17, 1999
By MARION SOFTKY
When the Dumbarton Bridge began carrying trains in 1910, it was the first bridge to span San Francisco Bay. Now, almost 90 years later, it is subject to new interest as commuters from the East Bay and beyond clog highways and bridges on their way to jobs in booming Silicon Valley.
Under the leadership of Atherton Councilman Malcolm Dudley, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority is well along in planning and funding a project that could rebuild the rail bridge, closed since 1982, and launch a new commute service across the Bay within five years.
The concept under consideration by the Dumbarton Corridor Task Force calls for nine morning trains to run at 15-minute intervals from the East Bay to the Peninsula, and nine returning in the afternoon. Trains would probably run between Union City, where passengers could connect with BART, and Redwood City, where alternate trains would run north and south on the main Caltrain line. Southbound trains would go to Mountain View, where they would connect with Santa Clara County's light rail line; northbound trains could go as far as Millbrae.
Under the most optimistic scenario, concept plans could be completed this year, and trains could start running in 2003.
Potential obstacles include finding funds for the $120 million project; opposition by neighbors in Menlo Park and North Fair Oaks, who don't want high-speed commute trains running behind their homes; and competition with other priorities for upgrading the Peninsula Caltrain system.
The Transportation Authority, which distributes San Mateo County's half-cent transit sales tax, has allocated $60 million of the estimated $120 million needed to put trains back on the bridge.
The project has also drawn strong support from the business community, whose employees increasingly can't afford to live in the county.
The San Mateo County Economic Development Association (SAMCEDA), which is co-chairing the Dumbarton Corridor Task Force, has urged the JPB to include Dumbarton rail service among its top priority projects.
Jim Bigelow, longtime chairman of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce transportation committee, stressed the need for more transit across the Bay. The Dumbarton highway bridge last year carried 76,000 trips per day, and that number is expected to increase each year by 5,000 trips per day, he said. "In the next 10 years you'll add 50,000 trips per day."
They also challenge the legality of the transportation authority allocating funds, which will actually be spent by the three-county Joint Powers Board (JPB) that runs Caltrain. "It's bizarre. There's a disconnect between the JPB and the transportation authority," said Jim dei Rossi.
Meanwhile, the JPB is engaged in an agonizing effort to set priorities for spending limited funds to upgrade the main Peninsula Caltrain service to increase both speed and frequency of trains. The comprehensive "Caltrain Rapid Rail Study" assigns lower priority to expansions of the system, such as rail across the Dumbarton Bridge, than to rehabilitation, enhancement and electrification of the main line.
The JPB meets March 4 to act on the Rapid Rail Study and set priorities that have been subject to heated debate since last October.
"I just don't see the Dumbarton Corridor as a high priority for the JPB," said Menlo Park Councilman Steve Schmidt, who sits on the JPB.
Because there is no allowance for bus lanes or diamond lanes on the Dumbarton highway bridge, Mr. Schmidt suggested that an interim step might be to fix the railroad bridge for buses, and delay train service. "You're stuck as long as there is no time advantage for buses," he said. "A superior choice would be to create a bus-way on the rail bridge alignment instead of rails."
Need for rail bridge
"Out of every 10 jobs, only two people can live in the county," he said. "The piece that is important as a transit alternative is the Dumbarton rail span."
Highway projects on the books will not solve the region's traffic woes, Mr. Bigelow said. They call for some additional lanes and improvements to intersections, but no major expansion in capacity. "There are no plans to add lanes to 280 or through-lanes to 101. There is nothing to widen the bridge between now and 2008," he said.
Highway projects in the pipeline are:
**Widening Bayfront Expressway from University Avenue to Marsh Road from four to six lanes.
**Adding auxiliary lanes on 101 between Marsh Road and Highway 92 to increase safety, but not capacity.
**Expanding the interchanges at Willow Road and University Avenue.
**Extending Route 84, Bayfront Expressway, from Marsh Road through salt ponds to Seaport Boulevard in Redwood City.
**Improving Highway 84 where it becomes Woodside Road in Redwood City.
Mr. Dudley was impressed by the turnout. "That was all the key people from three counties. That doesn't just happen," he said.
The discussion revealed the extraordinary complexity of transit systems on both sides of the Bay -- and the need for more.
The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE), which began train service in October between Stockton and San Jose, is already running at 90 percent of capacity in just three months, it was reported. The Capital Corridor service between Sacramento and San Jose is adding trains. And plans are moving forward for new trains between Union City and San Jose.
A new Dumbarton Express bus, which started in October to serve business areas of Menlo Park, is also building ridership. "We have to build the transit habit in the corridor," said Howard Goode of the transportation authority staff.
The transportation authority staff and a technical committee are refining plans for reactivating rail service to be presented to the task force later this year.
Several speakers at the January 19 meeting agreed it is important to broaden the discussion among the many groups that are interested. "We need a more inclusive process," said SAMCEDA President Denise de Ville. "In the long run if we're going to be successful, we need to include broader groups."
Next week: What's coming up for Caltrain and BART.