Dumbarton Study Update with SamTrans Planning Director

Part of the out-of-service Dumbarton bridge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Part of the out-of-service Dumbarton bridge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last January, Streetsblog reported on a Facebook-SamTrans collaboration to study transit uses for the Dumbarton rail corridor. The study is now about halfway completed and it’s already inspiring some intriguing ideas about how to use this asset.

As Streetsblog readers may know, the Dumbarton corridor is a 20-mile stretch of old railway tracks that runs from Caltrain’s mainline in Redwood City, continues past Facebook’s Menlo Park campus, and then runs across the fire-damaged Dumbarton Rail Bridge to the East Bay.

It’s always been a tantalizing bit of old infrastructure–re-activating the tracks could be used for a host of things, including allowing Caltrain to connect San Francisco and the cities of the Peninsula directly with southern Alameda County. Unfortunately, funds for any such possibility were drawn away to other projects back in 2014.

This new study, funded by a $1 million grant from Facebook, renews the effort. Believe it or not, there are some funding streams that may make it possible to restore rail on the corridor.

Streetsblog sat down with Douglas Kim, SamTrans Planning Director, to get a preview of the study, to talk about some of the initial finding, and to dream big about providing a whole new mass-transit link between San Mateo County and the East Bay.


Streetsblog: So tell me about the Dumbarton study.

Douglas Kim: It’s a million dollar Facebook-funded study, a holistic multi-modal look at both bridges.

SB: Meaning the old rail bridge and the current car bridge?

DK: Right. Past studies have looked at either one. We have multi-modal dreams, because even before Caltrans created Caltrain, we envisioned a cross-bay bridge to south Alameda County.

Douglas Kim, planning boss at SamTrans.
Douglas Kim, planning boss at SamTrans.

SB: What happened with that?

DK: We got focused on getting BART into San Mateo County. Meanwhile, the Dumbarton bridge continues to crumble. So Facebook and SamTrans have a mutual interest in making an east-west corridor work.

SB: Because their campus also happens to be right on the corridor.

DK: [nodding] We told Facebook: look this is not about taking transit riders to your front door, it’s about the whole corridor. They agreed. They’ve been really good partners about being holistic and looking at the big picture.

SB: Okay, but they still get a stop, right?

DK: They’ve said if it makes sense, but they also said to do the study and tell us what you think works. We’ve looked at a dozen different combinations of rail, bus, bike and managed lanes…carpool lanes, toll lanes…we’re about five months away from finalizing our alternatives analysis and defining what we think is the preferred.

SB: How’s it looking for a rail alternative?

DK: There will be a short term and a long term component. Long term…using the rail bridge is many years away. You have to basically reconstruct that bridge.

SB: Will that cost billions all in itself?

DK: [nods] We don’t want to wait and do nothing in the interim.

SB: Are the tracks from Redwood City to the start of the burned-out bridge actually used for anything today?

DK: A couple of miles are used for marginal freight activity.

SB Like once a week midnight delivery?

DK: We don’t even know if it’s that much.

SB: So you could, conceivably, do some minor upgrades, and drop a self-propelled train car, such as a diesel multiple unit, and have it zip commuters back and forth between Caltrain in Redwood City to the start of the bridge?

DK: We’re seriously looking at it. In the short term, there are logical things we can do to beef up express bus service and add bikeway enhancements with 84 and its approaches.

SB: Not the best place to bike.

DK: The bridge isn’t bad, it’s the approaches that are tricky. It’s not a user-friendly experience. It can be improved.

SB: Getting back to transit, tell us how a full rail option could get funded.

DK: If we went with rail, it is likely to have a capital costs starting at a billion. You’ve got the cost of rebuilding that bridge and we’re trying to figure out if anything can be salvaged, but between that and the super structure on top and all the approaches, it’s going to be a major capital project. What we know is, in order to make any kind of capital investment work on the corridor, we have to engage with the private sector and do some kind of P3 arrangement.

SB: Public-Private Partnership. Who do you envision partnering up, besides Facebook I guess?

DK: We know there’s a lot of public support among the cities in the South Bay and East Bay for doing some type of rail system. We’re doing the ridership modeling right now to see about the bang for the buck, but construct-ability is a big factor for us, and if we believe we can attract private investment to help…that means a lot. We’re going to be spending a lot of time seeing what can attract Wall Street investment to help pay for the capital costs…then we’re also looking at all kinds of arrangements for who would operate it and maintain it. It could be Caltrain, but we’re looking at a private consortium as well.

SB: It occurs to me that if you could get that simple rail shuttle going from Redwood City to the start of the bridge, as a first phase, that would help build political support for fixing the bridge too.

DK: [nodding] Then if you were to do some kind of East-West rail service, there’s the fundamental question–do you interline with Caltrain and go all the way to San Francisco, or do a shuttle service that requires a cross-platform connection? There are pros and cons to each.

SB: The now open question of electrification on Caltrain makes this a little more complicated I’d imagine. Would there even be space for more trains on the Caltrain mainline?

DK: [nods] With scheduling, and electrification still being discussed, we are looking hard at a shuttle that does not interline. That will affect ridership.

SB: In a bad way, I’d imagine?

DK: There are so many moving parts on Caltrain, not to mention High-speed rail, that it’s hard to get into that mix and complicate things further. But there’s a decent chance for the rail shuttle idea.

SB: A huge chunk of funding has to come from government? How’s that going to work?

DK: This summer we need to, as a region, have a collective conversation over whether we are all in on making something happen. We are talking to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, to try and get RM3 money.

SB: Regional Measure Three?

DK: A proposal to jack up bridge tolls. RM3 could raise $3-4 billion. It would be on the November 2018 ballot. It could fund Dumbarton, a second Transbay crossing. There are lots of hands out there right now for the money.

SB: But if you can get political support for Dumbarton?

DK: That’s why we are talking with Facebook and other Silicon Valley interests to see if Dumbarton is something that’s important to them. We’re going to call for the question this summer and say look MTC, look Alameda County, look advocates, is this important to you? If so, we need to put together an innovative funding and finance package.

SB: SamTrans can put this together?

DK: We’re doing some soul searching right now whether or not we want to take on this major a Multi-modal investment. It’s a massive capital project, and we have to determine if we’re positioned to take it on.

SB: So when does the study come out exactly?

DK: Summer of 2017.

SB: Good luck.

DK: Thanks.

Portions of this interview were edited

  • thielges

    “… we’re also looking at all kinds of arrangements for who would operate it and maintain it. It could be Caltrain…”

    I sure hope we don’t create yet another transit operator. There are too many already.

    Nice to see this proceeding. Thanks for the informative interview.

  • Affen_Theater

    Apostrophe error in the headline: it should be “Samtrans’ (possessive) planning director” … and Hwy 84 is not an interstate, so I-84 in the interview transcript is incorrect as well.

    There is a huge existing and latent transportation demand in the Dumbarton Corridor … all approaches are jammed … downtown Palo Alto and Stanford workers who live in SF take Caltrain but the ever growing number who live east of the Bay mostly drive and jam the highway bridge and its approaches and surrounding areas (thanks to Waze) and the feeder highways (101 and 880).

    The lack of champions, urgency, funding, leadership or action on this amazing … particularly considering Samtrans purchased the transbay Dumbarton rail line on the cheap for future transit use about 25 years ago.

    The expectation-lowering interview with Kim was a huge downer for me because if it’s any reflection of Samtrans/Caltrain’s lack of energy or enthusiasm for doing something with the rail corridor ASAP, we’re probably all doomed to continue watching this precious and neglected transbay rail right of way continue to rot until most of us are either retired or dead.

  • vcs

    > considering Samtrans purchased the transbay Dumbarton rail line on the cheap for future transit use about 25 years ago

    Samtrans bought a white elephant fart 25 year ago.

    One doesn’t even need to read very closely between the lines on this article to realize there is no rail bridge at Dumbarton. There is only a bunch of old scrap which has to be removed if a rail bridge is ever constructed on that corridor. (for $billions)

    That being said, any and all funding is going into BART to downtown San Jose (just in case you want to take transit to a place where you can die of boredom). If Silicon Valley business leaders can get the priorities changed, that would be great.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I fail to see why that bridge needs to cost billions. It passes over one inch of water, except for the central channel that is tiny. I bet you could either prefab the center span and float it down, or tell the Alviso yacht club to fuck off and just build it without any clearance.

  • Mike Jones

    The spur line to Facebook at Redwood City (if it too were electrified), could help capacity by diverting stopping trains off the mainline. In the mornings the “Facebook” trains could pop -in just behind the expresses. Of course, these trains would serve more than just Facebook; Marsh and Middlefield would be two other useful stops.

  • david vartanoff

    25 years ago we were promised Caltrain would be electrified, run to the basement of the bus terminal, AND Dumbarton service. No one even envisioned Facebook, let alone the constant siphoning of regional transit monies by BART to cover endless cost overruns–MTC’s term of art is “reprogramming.”
    Think of the mega millions spent on the silly sound walls which could have been used for these projects. The bridgework should be fast tracked (pun deliberate) as various freeway repairs have been, wires put up and additional ACE trains run to the Redwood City transfer station if not through to 4th St. But, hey, if we have another dot com bust or engineered recession, traffic will decrease.

  • Affen_Theater

    Kim is just exhibiting laziness by saying “billions”. As I recall, serious people have put the figure for a new bridge in the range of hundreds of millions … with the whole transbay end-to-end project cost including trains and stations at a billion or less.

    As per federal regulations, maritime / ship access to the Bay south of the span must be preserved, so a fixed bridge must either be high (like the adjacent highway bridge) or be openable (as the old rail bridge is/was). This makes sense … and regardless of how shallow it may be, you cannot just forever foreclose the possibility of boats, ships and possible future ferries from reaching the entire Bay south of the bridge — including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Google, Moffett Field, and Alviso!

  • Affen_Theater

    Bay Rail Alliance, an advocacy group, has a nice Dumbarton Rail web page I found by Googling “Dumbarton Rail”: http://www.bayrailalliance.org/dumbarton_rail

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Oh, I don’t know. Is it worth preserving? I’ve never seen anything larger than a kayak south of the Dumbarton and the nearest actual port is in Redwood City. You couldn’t get anything that draws more than an inch to Moffett even at high water, and then only if you knocked down dozens of levees. Alviso is fucked either way, nobody should live there. Perhaps you are suggesting that given rising sea levels we’ll be unloading barges in the South Bay but I sincerely doubt it.

  • murphstahoe

    What about the fine folks of Drawbridge?

  • Affen_Theater

    Regardless of what you or I think, you cannot cut off any navigable waters of the United States. Case closed.

    Navigable waters of the United States are those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce.
    33 CFR Part 329 https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2011-title33…/CFR-2011-title33-vol3-part329.pdf

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I don’t doubt it, but there must be more nuance to it than that. There are numerous low bridges over tidal waters of the Bay. The existing UPRR/Amtrak line runs over Mud Slough on a low, fixed bridge and over Coyote Creek on a levee with a couple through-holes in the bottom, and those are the only two plausible navigable waterways in that part of the Bay.

  • Affen_Theater

    I can’t speak to the status of what you cite, but I am certain the waters south of the Dumbarton rail bridge qualify. That determination was made and confirmed during a prior aborted-only-for-lack-of-funding Dumbarton rail service study.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    It’s great that SamTrans has allocated SamTrans another million dollars to do nothing.
    And again.
    And again.
    And again.
    And again.

    America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals, doing what they do best. Again, and again, and again, and again.

    A small novelty this around time the do-nothing is very upfront that nothing will be done. Mmmm, feels so good to have one’s nose rubbed right in it.

  • p_chazz

    So they should build a tube, not a bridge. It could be multi-modal with bus lanes.

  • Affen_Theater

    Yes, while more costly than a bridge, a bored rail tunnel makes more sense now that the SFPUC’s Hetch Hetchy first-ever bored transbay tunnel was recently completed and put into service in the exact same corridor without their tunnel boring machine (TBM) encountering any cost-escalating or project-complicating weird or unexpected soils: http://sfwater.org/bids/projectDetail.aspx?prj_id=259

  • murphstahoe

    This new study, funded by a $1 million grant from Facebook

  • joechoj

    Tell me more. I don’t see any marinas or shipping facilities south of the bridge on Google Maps, so why the need?

    Now, the necessity of preserving healthy water flow for environmental reasons I can get behind, but I can’t believe the shipping need, unless it’s simply an outdated regulation from the bygone saltworks era.

  • It is too bad that the Fremont BART station was not built a bit further north, at a place once called “Shinn”, where the BART line and the railtracks that lead on to the Dumbarton Bridge cross.


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