BART vs. Dumbarton Rail debate gets testy


The dust has settled, and round one in a fight for scarce Bay Area transit dollars goes to Dumbarton Rail supporters.

The Dumbarton Rail Policy Advisory Committee, made up of public officials from communities and agencies that would be served by commuter train service across a restored Dumbarton rail bridge, voted 9-3 on July 22 to denounce a proposal to take $91 million from the project's budget and loan it to BART to extend service to Warm Springs. (Warm Springs is in southern Fremont, just north of the Santa Clara County border.)

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.

BART supporters

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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Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 30, 2008 at 9:20 am

Don’t you love it when the transit operators fight over a “fistful of dollars” when in fact they can’t afford to build anything?

Go get’em BART. Go get’em Dumbarton. “I want the $91 million.” “No, I want the $91 million; I need it more.”

Kids, why won’t they ever learn?

You see, the problem is much more complicated. First of all, most of the transit operators, as the Almanac Editorial and Rory Brown’s article points out, are busy fighting for too few dollars to meet the needs of their expansionist agendas.

You should ask why they want to expand. What’s the point? None of them understand what business they are in. They think they are in the railroad business; laying more track, electrifying, expanding. They don’t realize that they should be in the people moving business, the transit business. Furthermore, they think they can go it alone, and indeed they are all highly competitive.

How stupid. As the Almanac has taken great pains to point out, they should be collaborating, working together synergistically and becoming the components of one integrated system of urban and regional transit. They should be multi-modal, not rail obsessed. It’s not about the trains, you guys. It’s about the best ways to move people around the Bay Area.

And, by the way, the Dumbarton task force (Caltrain in disguise) says that to get their train line across the Bay will cost $600 million. With or without the $91 million, they don’t have $600 million.

But, here’s the more important point. They will discover (if they don’t already know or just won’t tell us) that the remains of the train trestle across the Bay can’t be used because what’s left of it is not earthquake resistant enough for today’s standards. Oops.

The High-Speed rail authority apparently knows this and in anticipating the Altamont option for their route into the Bay Area, they planned for several versions of a new bridge. You can read about it in their EIR/EIS. That new bridge would cost over $1 billion and more like $2 billion.

Like this comment
Posted by Neal Johnson
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2008 at 11:21 am

Dumbarton Rail makes no sense. The need for better transit in this corridor would be better served by Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and HOV improvements. If BART needs the extra money, going after this $91 million makes perfect sense.

Like this comment
Posted by Pulsar
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2008 at 8:01 pm

Trains are dangerous just today train hit pedestrians again. BART has
right of ways built in which makes it vastly superior to trains (and
major reason its more expensive), BART is also already electrified,
goes to all major airports, sports stadiums, etc. BART would
encourage Bay Area growth and business and higher density instead
of encouraging people to commute from the farm fields of Turlock. By
supporting BART to major cities including SJ would encourage its use
to SJ Sharks games, SJ Performing Arts, SJ covention center, SJ
business, etc. A train connection is less likely to be used.

Train accident #1:
Web Link

Train accident #2:
Web Link

Train accident #3:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by John Wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 31, 2008 at 10:53 am

Mr. Engel is correct, these giant committees never know what business they're in, and fighting over scraps is a simple waste of time. The Secretary of Transportation, Ms. Peters, is starting to realize that this all has to change, and is now trying to tweak the system to subject highway projects to cost benefit analysis prior to funding ( a first ). It is noted in that same announcement that on average a US transit project can take around 13 years to complete the approval cycle.

This bureaucratic ossification has particularly severe consequences for transportation. Consider instead the new Stanford stadium, a genuinely well done project completed in a single year, due to limiting the decision processes to three people; the funder, the architect, and the builder. Until this approach can be brought to transit projects, we are doomed to the status quo.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay L. Tulock
a resident of another community
on Aug 2, 2008 at 10:13 pm

Trains are not dangerous unless you are into walking on tracks, committing suicide by train, swerving around crossing gates, or sitting on the tracks at a crossing. The rest of you should be fine.

Using the HSRA as an "Authority" is rather silly. They priced the $1-2 billion for a bridge because they didn't want to build over Altamont for political/corruption reasons. The REASON the Dumbarton crossing is costing $600 million is TO rebuild the bridge so it meets standards, not in addition to it.

The Dumbarton is the best possible transit project for the peninsula/east bay. This is just a first step in numerous future links that this corridor can bridge, and six trains just the start of major frequency updgrades.

BART, though a wonderful system where it runs, is a black hole of funds that could built several conventional systems for every equal length of BART track. Had we built Caltrain-like service San Jose-Union City as once envisioned (the cars and locomotives were even on order a decade ago, until the BART-or-bust corruptionoids stepped on VTA's toes), we would have had trains running all day connecting BART to San Jose FIVE YEARS AGO. We'll maybe see Warm Springs BART in five years, if we're lucky. When, if ever, it hits Caltrain is at least 1-2 decades after that. I'm ordering a ride for my coffin in advance, just to make sure I make the trip!


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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