Facebook Expansions Could Spur Dumbarton Rail in Menlo Park

Facebook wants to develop new housing, office, and retail within walking distance of two potential Dumbarton Rail stations. Image: City of Menlo Park

Long-delayed efforts to restore train service on the Dumbarton Rail Corridor, which links the mid-Peninsula to the East Bay, could get a boost as Facebook looks to add housing and offices along the tracks in Menlo Park.

This spring, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority will study how to bring service to a 4.5-mile segment of the Dumbarton tracks between the Redwood City Caltrain Station and Willow Road in Menlo Park, as recommended by the Dumbarton Policy Advisory Committee. Restoring service to that segment would not require the replacement of sections of the Dumbarton Rail Bridge or major track reconstructions. (Both would be needed to restore service on the full 20.5-mile Dumbarton corridor between the Redwood City Caltrain and Union City BART stations.)

Facebook is rapidly expanding its “East Campus” headquarters in Menlo Park, where roughly 4,600 employees now work. The campus is located within walking distance of a proposed Dumbarton Rail station at Willow Road, a source of potential ridership unforeseen in a 2011 study of the project [PDF]. The company still has room to grow to 6,600 employees at the East Campus and add another 2,800 at its nearby West Campus. One parcel over, Facebook plans to add another 1,500 employees at a refurbished warehouse on a ten-building, 59-acre site purchased in September.

Facebook wants to develop up to 3,500 housing units on its East Campus parking lots and at the adjacent 56-acre Menlo Science and Technology Center, a sprawling 21-building commercial site purchased from Prologis in February. The company sees these sites, as well as another another site owned by developer David Bohannon near Marsh Road to the west, an opportunity to create mixed-use neighborhoods within a half-mile walk of potential Dumbarton Rail stations.

“We very much want to preserve the option of studying housing on the site and on our campus,” wrote Fergus O’Shea, Facebook’s director of campus facilities, in a February e-mail to members of Menlo Park’s General Plan Advisory Committee. “Housing not only would allow for our employees to live near the campus, but would also reduce traffic, increase the overall supply of housing in Menlo Park, and present an opportunity to deliver below market rate units.”

An environmental review of the proposed 4.5-mile Dumbarton Rail segment could begin this May, if planning funds are available for the project. SMCTA staff are expected to deliver a funding update on May 29.

After environmental approval, money to construct and operate the passenger rail service would still need to be raised, since the original Dumbarton Rail Corridor Project was defunded in 2014 to help pay for other regional transportation projects, including BART’s extension to Warm Springs.

If restoring Dumbarton rail service is not feasible, Facebook supports “the transformation of the Rail Corridor into a Community Transit Corridor, running from either the Redwood City CalTrain Station or Marsh Road to Willow Road,” which could include “a Bus Rapid Transit line on rubberized tracks, along with a bicycle/pedestrian trail,” according to an October letter from Vice-President of Real Estate John Tenanes.

  • shotwellian

    I’m having a hard time understanding the logic of a train line that runs solely the ~5 miles between Redwood City and Willow Road. It seems like for most EPA and Belle Haven residents, a Willow Road station wouldn’t be much closer than the PA or MP Caltrain stations, and since unless the new line were integrated with Caltrain, passengers would have to transfer at Redwood City anyway, any time savings won by going to the closer station would be lost.

    If on the other hand it’s not about EPA & Belle Haven residents and is about Facebook employees, then I’m not interested in using public $ to subsidize Facebook’s decision to headquarter in an anachronistic suburban office park.

  • jltulock

    It is about MTC completely destroying the rail corridor to preserve BART. MTC corruption continues.

  • Andy Chow

    The rail corridor has potential even on the Peninsula segment because it can help divert traffic off Willow and University where there are no highway expansion planned and where the residents are suffering from the traffic and the pollution generated from the traffic. Bus improvements still cannot address the traffic on Willow and University.

  • jonobate

    Take a look at Clem Tillier’s proposal for running Caltrain as two service patterns, a ‘San Mateo local’ and ‘Silicon Valley express’, which I think makes a lot of sense:

    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2013/10/census-driven-service-planning.html

    Now, imagine the ‘San Mateo local’ continues onto Willow Rd station and terminates there rather than at Redwood City. Easy peasy.

  • murphstahoe

    Now you have trains that are needed in San Jose or Gilroy to bring the majority of commuters who commute into SF, sitting on a track in Menlo

  • Given CalTrain’s constant funding problems, I don’t really see how adding additional lines makes any sense at all. This really ought to go to a transit agency that has some level of guaranteed funding, like BART.

  • 94110

    No one (statistically speaking) commutes from Gilroy on Caltrain.

  • jonobate

    Splitting the service pattern into two achieves several positive outcomes:

    1) It allows you to increase frequency on the SF to Silicon Valley commute pattern without having to increase frequency at the minor stations in San Mateo county, allowing you to provide frequent service where most needed. The proposal has trains to/from Silicon Valley every 15 mins, and trains to/from minor stations in San Mateo county every 30 mins. (Major stations in San Mateo county – Millbrae, Hillsdale, Redwood City – get trains every ~10 mins.)

    2) It speeds up the travel time from SF to Silicon Valley by skipping all the minor stations in San Mateo county. Right now if you’re going from SF to Silicon Valley you either have to hope there’s a Baby Bullet that matches your travel time and stops at your destination station, or spend far too much time on a Limited or Local train that stops at a bunch of minor stations.

    3) It simplifies the service pattern, which is good for everyone.

    So this proposal improves things dramatically for SF to Silicon Valley travel, including travel between SF and San Jose. It does not provide any service to Gilroy, but as noted below, ridership to/from Gilroy is negligible, and it’s hard to justify sending trains down there when SF – SJ is standing room only. Morgan Hill and Gilroy would be better served by extending Capitol Corridor or ACE to serve those stations rather than Caltrain.

  • jonobate

    BART technology isn’t the right choice for the corridor, which is already compatible with existing Caltrain equipment.

    A way to solve Caltrain’s funding problem (which is really just a political problem) would be to merge BART and Caltrain and put them both under the same management. Extend the BART sales tax to San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and retire the existing county level funding agreements used to fund Caltrain and BART to SFO and BART to San Jose. BART and Caltrain should be working together rather than against each other.

  • Skyline

    The vehicle congestion on Willow Road and University Avenue is horrendous, and rail service is one of the few improvements that can make a tangible difference. The rail is there, it’s not a massive spend on new infrastructure, it already exists. Getting this segment up and running can create more interest in rebuilding the connection across the bay. As far as who it would serve, I see this as both/and instead of either/or.

  • Either way, the challenge is getting those two counties to ever agree to an additional sales tax. There’s nothing multimillionaires love more than whining about taxes.

  • jonobate

    Yeah, that’s true enough

  • murphstahoe

    Forget Gilroy. The NB platforms at Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Hillsdale, San Mateo, are full in the AM. The SB-NB AM commute is still at a 60/40 mode share.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think this is a good strategy. Compared to other regions, having a single mode transit agency hasn’t help foster integration between transit modes. What we need are multimodal agencies.

    San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are multimodal agencies, even though they only operate local transit in house and pay other agencies to run regional service.

    What the Dumbarton Corridor needs is a JPA that covers rail planning and governs the existing bus service. That way planning is integrated modally. The JPA should have a dedicated staff to pursue funding and political support. The project is in life-support now because cities like Fremont don’t think the corridor needs rail (even though they got whatever they wanted on BART), but has not proposed any serious alternatives (something non-specific like signal priority for buses don’t count).

    If a partial extension is to be pursued, there’s needs to be a tight bus rail integration to make the system work.

  • Amanda Clark

    Don’t say that on CAHSRBLOG!

  • vcs

    “The corridor” doesn’t really mean that much here, given that the bridge is 1) ancient and decrepit, and 2) part of it already burned down. They would have to rebuild everything from scratch.

    This would be great BRT corridor. I’m not a huge fan of BRT, but it would be a cheap and very effective way to get people to these office campuses. The railfans can wait around 20 years for a new Dumbarton bridge. Even if you created some new agency and funding, this is an expensive and probably unnecessary piece of infrastructure.

  • jonobate

    The increase in service at Silicon Valley stations applies NB as well as SB.

  • aslevin

    The problem with bus vs rail is that without a dedicated lane, the bus gets stuck in the same traffic as solo drivers. We’ve seen in Santa Clara county that dedicating a lane to transit on a corridor with congestion gets a lot of political opposition – even if the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks. Unless you have dedicated right of way, transit mode share will stay low because bus in traffic will also be slow.

  • Ken

    “subsidize Facebook’s decision to headquarter in an anachronistic suburban office park”

    Facebook isn’t the one paying for the consequences of that decision — people impacted by the increased congestion in the area are. Building transit to where the people go is the whole point — arguing that we shouldn’t build transit to large employment centers because it’s somehow a “public subsidy” is nonsense.

  • shotwellian

    I agree that we should improve transit to major employment centers, but I’d rather prioritize our very limited $ on funding transit to areas that (1) are not just employment centers for a single corporation and (2) would serve a mix of blue and white collar jobs. While EPA is of course a working-class community, as I said above, I’d need to be convinced that this line would be useful for many EPA residents.

  • tommy t

    That doesn’t make sense. There is no room on the Dunbarton for new bus-only lanes, and Palo Alto would never allow the conversion of existing lanes. Never.

  • tommy t

    I do agree that Caltrain needs a more predictable schedule (and simply more trains), but there’s no justification to give stations north of the rail spur better frequency than those to the south! Palo Alto is by far the busiest station after SF, and the next busiest stations are Mountain View and San Jose (and Sunnyvale and Tamien ridership are probably growing at the fastest rates of the whole system). These are all in Santa Clara County and all need better than 15-minute frequency.

    Something that makes a lot of sense in your link is that South San Jose is insanely under-served. Hundreds of thousands of people and almost no trains.

  • murphstahoe

    How about if we just give the buses on the Dumbarton a police escort with sirens blaring. That way we get the right of way for the buses without having to give up the lane full time?

  • jonobate

    It’s not at all the case that stations north of the spur have better frequency than those to the south, under this proposal. All but three of the stations north of the spur have 30 min frequency, and all stations south of the spur have 15 min frequency. The whole point of splitting the service pattern is so that you don’t have to give the two halves of the corridor equal frequency.

    Maybe it’s the case that the stations south of the spur could use frequencies higher than 15 mins (and that stations north of the spur could use frequencies higher than 30 mins), but that would require new passing tracks. This proposal was constructed using the assumption of having the existing infrastructure plus electrification.

  • A dedicated “Cross-Bay” Rail Service from Union City BART to the Redwood City Caltrain Station makes complete sense. Give Facebook it’s own “Train Stop” right behind their new building if it’s going to hire another 6,000+ employees. It reduces the Dumbarton Bridge Traffic and gets more people off the road. The bridge is a parking lot most mornings and afternoons at this point. Adding more busses is just foolish, packing the bridge with awkward lumbering busses will slow the bridge down even further.

  • I always wondered why Fremont didn’t have a BART station right where it crosses the (formerly) Southern Pacific tracks that go on to the abandoned Dumbarton rail crossing. I think it was called “Shinn” in days of yore. A Caltrain branch going that way across to the “Southeast Bay” would have made a lot of sense.

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