Dumbarton rail service chugs forward

Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 9, 1998

TRANSPORTATION: Dumbarton rail service chugs forward

Plan for passenger trains wins approval, but bulk of funding is still up in the air

by Loren Stein

The Dumbarton Rail Bridge, closed since 1982, could come back to life under a plan to ease cross-bay traffic congestion by establishing passenger rail service to the East Bay. But key details, such as how to pay for it, are still under consideration.

The San Mateo County Transportation Authority approved a plan Thursday to proceed with the creation of a commuter rail line connecting Redwood City and Newark.

By unanimous vote, the transportation authority pledged an additional $50 million over the $10 million already secured by the county to rebuild the dormant bridge and establish the commuter rail line by 2003.

Opened to rail traffic in 1910, the 11-mile Dumbarton rail bridge is the only original bay crossing not currently in use. Located just south of the highway bridge, the rail bridge carried freight trains until 1982. San Mateo County purchased the rail right-of-way from Southern Pacific Railroad for $6.9 million in 1994, with an eye toward establishing a commuter rail service over the span.

If the county succeeds with its ambitious plans, the bridge line would be the only diesel-powered commuter train service across the bay. The Bay Area's first commuter rail line, the Key system, ran across the Bay Bridge from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

"The growth in jobs in Silicon Valley and the south Bay Area in the last several years has rekindled interest in rail service across the South Bay," says Howard Goode, deputy executive director of the county Transportation Authority.

A task force with officials representing San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Joaquin counties will meet in January to begin the process of devising a viable rail plan and finding ways to secure funding for the project. Rehabilitating the rail corridor is estimated to cost $120 million.

Two previous studies by the county had concluded that the rail project was not viable because of the high cost of repairing the bridge--2,000 feet of which was destroyed in a fire in January--building stations and buying passenger trains. This time, San Mateo County has been able to get the support of nearby counties, which also recognize the increased need for the commuter rail service.

"The (rail line's) chances are excellent because of the approach being taken, which is a wider and more regional plan," says Edgar Ugarte, program manager for the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. "What we are trying to do is embrace other authorities and political bodies and have their support to see the project delivered."

The task force, which is jointly sponsored by the San Mateo County Economic Development Council, will set a course for the project and report back to the transportation authority for approval by mid-1999. Goode stressed that the rail line depends on shared funding by East Bay counties. "For the effort to go forward, we will need a partnership with the East Bay, which includes the contribution of resources," he said.

To reduce operating costs, the county plans to eliminate locomotive cars and instead build passenger cars that are each equipped with their own diesel motors. The alternative technology, based on European models, will be less expensive over the long term because smaller crews will be required, Goode said.

The commuter rail line would link Redwood City to Newark, with a new cross platform constructed at the Union City BART station. Trains arriving on the Peninsula would join the Caltrain line at Redwood City, with half turning north, making stops as far as Millbrae. The other half would turn south, making stops as far as Sunnyvale.

The increase in train traffic has alarmed east Menlo Park residents, who live near the right-of-way and would be affected by train noise, said Goode.

Overall, commuter traffic has increased markedly as employees travel from more affordable housing in the East Bay to jobs on the Peninsula or in the South Bay. "Traffic volume along Dumbarton Bridge has grown dramatically in recent years, above the projections that Caltrans had made for the bridge," Ugarte said.

The latest statistics from 1996 show that Dumbarton Bridge traffic has increased from 50,000 vehicles per day in 1992 to more than 70,000 in 1996. At the same time, the peak-hour volume has remained steady, as the bridge's capacity has been reached. This translates into increased traffic congestion and slower commutes.

Funding for the plan remains the largest obstacle, say county officials. Current proposals include maintaining the $2 Dumbarton highway bridge toll; San Mateo County directing a portion of its Caltrain support from the Measure A sales tax to the project; and Alameda County reformulating its Measure B transportation funding authority to include the Dumbarton rail project.

Having the Dumbarton commuter rail line up and running by 2003 is "an optimistic time line," Goode concedes. "But if everything falls into place, it could happen." 

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