Jim Hartnett, general manager and CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), explained that SamTrans has entered into an exclusive 18-month partnership with Cross Bay Transit Partners to explore the feasibility of reinstating passenger rail transit along the Dumbarton corridor. The initiative is entirely funded by the private sector, said Winsome Bowen, Facebook's head of regional transportation strategy.
Several attendees asked about the nature of the partnership, how it was formed, and what it means for the future of the rail corridor.
Plenary Group Executive Chairman Dale Bonner explained that the partnership with SamTrans involves an exclusive negotiation agreement — a typical process for such agencies — to take the potential project through an analysis to determine if it's feasible to build and operate. This process also involves seeking environmental clearances for the project. Construction and engineering work would be done by other firms chosen through a competitive bidding process.
"That's all we have — an exclusive right to take a look," he said. Cross Bay Transit Partners may decide the project is not feasible, or the public may come out in force to say it's not appropriate, he added.
To move forward, the project would have to win approval from a wide array of agencies, he explained. It must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, and gain support by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Altamont Corridor Express rail system and others.
If all goes according to an ambitious project timeline, the feasibility analysis and environmental certification could be completed by the first quarter of 2021. If the SamTrans board approves the environmental impact report by around that time, then subsequent steps — such as finalizing a longer-term contract between Cross Bay Transit Partners and SamTrans and reaching agreements to design, build, operate and maintain the project — might be done in time to start construction in 2022.
Between now and about the third quarter of 2020, Cross Bay Transit Partners will be conducting community outreach; doing environmental, commercial and financial analyses; pursuing agreements with federal, state and local agencies; and evaluating the technical feasibility of the project, according to a project timeline.
Questions and answers
Following a brief presentation, Bowen, Bonner and Hartnett fielded questions from the audience. Below are some of the questions and responses discussed. This was the last of four initial outreach meetings held by the group; others were held in Newark, Fremont and Redwood City.
Q: What is the state of the current abandoned Dumbarton rail line?
A: The existing rail is not suitable to use, and was built in 1910, Hartnett said. "Whatever we do has to be consistent with the future."
Q: What's the revenue model?
A: That depends on ridership estimates and system costs, both of which are currently unknown, Bonner said. Cross Bay Transit Partners plans to evaluate the entire cost of the project, including maintenance costs, rather than only construction costs as some developers do.
Q: What about tunneling the train under the Bay? Given the threat of sea level rise, should this be considered?
A: According to Bonner, SamTrans doesn't own the right-of-way to do so, so that alternative is not being explored at this point.
Q: What would be the impacts of the new rail line for residents who live near the Dumbarton rail tracks?
A: According to Bowen, the project organizers have listened to feedback, particularly from Belle Haven residents who have opposed a bus operating in the rail corridor. The environmental impact analyses will also require mitigations and project adjustments to minimize impacts on sensitive communities, she added.
Q: Is this a pie-in-the-sky proposal? Is there potential for the Plenary Group to make money on this?
A: "There isn't any transit project anywhere that pencils out based on fare box (returns)," Bonner explained. He added that the analysis has to be done first to determine what the gap between the project costs and potential revenue is, and to identify what opportunities there are to close that gap. There may also be federal and state grants available in addition to some local funds, he added.
Q: What happens if something happens to Facebook or the Plenary Group?
A: By forming a separate company, Cross Bay Transit Partners, there are protections in place through insurance, equity investments and other factors to protect the project, Bonner said.
Q: What will the rail line connect to?
A: Some work still needs to be done with existing rail service providers to establish connections from the Dumbarton rail line to Caltrain, and in the future in the East Bay, to the Capitol Corridor Amtrak line and BART, Bowen said. Liz Ames, BART board director for District 6, which includes Fremont, Union City, and Newark, commented, "To me, if you don't connect BART to Caltrain, it's not a viable project."
Q: Much of the transbay traffic that crosses the Dumbarton Bridge to the Peninsula heads south. How will the rail line get those commuters out of cars, if it only goes north to Redwood City?
A: According to Bowen, the group plans to work closely with regional traffic models from the City/County Association of Governments and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Hartnett added that over the next year and a half, SamTrans will be evaluating how to better meet community transit needs and completing a comprehensive analysis of its bus system in a process parallel to Cross Bay Transit Partners' project analysis.
Q: Would the train be diesel or electric?
A: The analyses are not evaluating diesel trains, but other alternatives, Bowen said.
Q: Are any homes along the rail line at risk of being lost or taken by eminent domain?
A: No. The proposed project would work within the existing rail right-of-way, and mitigations to minimize impacts to residents may also be required, Bowen said.