In a sharp acceleration of a project that has for decades lurched through planning processes that haven't gone anywhere, a proposal to reinstate passenger rail transit along the Dumbarton corridor is moving forward in earnest, due mainly to a new partnership formed by SamTrans, Facebook and the Plenary Group.
SamTrans Deputy General Manager Carter Mau announced to the Menlo Park City Council on Oct. 23 that the transit agency entered an agreement with Facebook and the Plenary Group in August, with the intent of exploring the feasibility of building and operating a rail line between Redwood City and Newark.
On its website, the Plenary Group describes itself as "an independent long-term investor, developer and manager of public infrastructure."
Mau said the agreement stipulates that SamTrans and a new limited liability corporation formed by Facebook and the Plenary Group, called "Cross Bay Transit Partners," will, over an 18-month period, conduct state and federal environmental impact analyses and a fiscal impact analysis to determine if a reinstated transbay rail line is feasible. They plan to study a set of alternatives to determine what proposal would work best.
One of the analyses' considerations will be whether an electric rail line would work. "Our intent is to try to do electric on the corridor, but I would hate to rule anything out at this point," Mau said.
A Dumbarton rail bridge across the Bay, which opened in 1910, was the first transbay bridge in the Bay Area, predating the Bay Bridge, San Mateo Bridge and the Dumbarton corridor's bridge for vehicles. But that structure fell into disrepair and was heavily damaged in a fire in 1998.
SamTrans bought the rail right-of-way in 1994 but hasn't had funds to redevelop it, though several studies on potential rail projects have been completed over the years. By now, the rail bridge's remains are a safety hazard that will have to be removed, requiring "substantial funding," according to the agency's study on the corridor. SamTrans doesn't have a designated funding source to do that removal.
In fact, minimizing its fiscal liability was one of the main priorities of the transit district when entering negotiations with the private entities. Other priorities were that the corridor would have to be used for a public benefit and that any project completed should "maximize the value" of the right-of-way for SamTrans' business operations and for the public, Mau said.
Facebook and the Plenary Group could help meet those goals because, according to the partners' agreement, they are "well-positioned to attract and/or invest, from their own resources, the significant amounts of equity and debt capital required for successful implementation of the proposed project."
Funding for the analyses, Mau said, will come "100 percent" from Facebook and the Plenary Group.
With those priorities agreed upon, SamTrans and Cross Bay Transit Partners signed the "exclusive negotiation agreement" Aug. 14, starting an 18-month period to accomplish what promises to be an enormous task.
" I think it's a very aggressive timeline," Charles Stone, a Belmont councilman and chair of the SamTrans Board of Directors, told The Almanac.
Both Mau and Stone emphasized that the project is still in a nascent stage. The partners are still working to assemble their team of staff and consultants, Mau explained. An ad-hoc subcommittee for the project held its first meeting in mid-October, Stone said, adding, "There is no fleshed-out plan. All we've said is we're going to talk to these folks about what might be possible."
Facebook spokesperson Anthony Harrison said in an email that Facebook is working to be a "good neighbor" in the area and understands that the Dumbarton rail corridor "is in our backyard and could help address transportation challenges across the region."
He continued: "A project this complex is best handled via a strong partnership with the public and government sectors. Since this work is not part of our core business, we chose Plenary Group as our partner and formed Cross Bay Transit Partners as a joint venture to work with SamTrans, the owner of the rail corridor. We are committed to due diligence for the next 18-24 months to determine the financial and technical viability of the project."
There's an acknowledgment that the success of the project will depend on a broad range of local, regional, state and federal supporters coming together – such as the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE), the San Francsico Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, and the cities along the rail corridor. It will also require private help.
As for funding, Regional Measure 3, the new bridge toll tax approved in June, put aside $130 million for the project. Up to 10 percent of funds generated by the San Mateo County-wide Measure W – which voters were to decide on Nov. 6, after The Almanac went to press – could also go toward the project. This funding pool could generate as much as $240 million over 30 years.
"We all realize this is not going to be an easy project to deliver," Mau said. "It's a process that everyone – everyone – is going to need to get behind for the project to succeed. This project has the potential to be a real game-changer."
Already, Stone said, unforeseen challenges have popped up for the project. He explained that the existing bridge trestle is owned by the federal government, and is leased by the California State Lands Commission. In preliminary talks, it became evident that SamTrans would have to renew that lease. "And that might take some contortions," he said. "This is not going to be a quick process."
Despite the challenges, Stone added, the project holds the potential to create a template for how the public and private sectors can partner on key infrastructure projects. "I don't think there's anything like it," he said.
Starting in the new year, Mau said, people should expect things to start moving forward in earnest. Beginning in late January or early February, the group will be reaching out to cities along the corridor, and in particular, neighborhoods that run along the right-of-way of the train tracks, he told the Menlo Park council.