A new rail service connecting the Peninsula and the East Bay along the Dumbarton Rail corridor has the potential to offer major benefits. It would provide a convenient low-stress, environmentally sustainable commute option between the Peninsula, East Bay, and the Central Valley with the potential to take tens of thousands of cars off the Dumbarton Bridge and its congested access routes, according to a recent study by SamTrans, the public owner of the corridor.
The project is spearheaded by Crossbay Transit Partners, an alliance among Facebook, a major employer with about 15,000 employees in Menlo Park near the base of the Dumbarton Bridge, the Plenary Group (a company specializing in public private infrastructure), and SamTrans, the San Mateo County bus agency that owns the corridor, whose general manager and some some of whose staff are shared by Caltrain, the 3-county rail backbone on the West side of the Bay.
The project sponsors are about to come forward with public information about options for the project, in order to do analysis required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
Imagine if the Dumbarton Rail connection were being planned as it would be in other parts of the world where seamless, integrated regional transit networks are the norm.
- Regional or state planners would set travel time goals, from common passenger origins to common passenger destinations. Operations and service would be designed to optimize access to origins and destinations, ridership for the new service, and travel time for passengers.
- Planners would consider investments in multiple legs of the journey in order to achieve the travel time and transfer time goals.
- The project would be based on key hub stations where passengers could have swift timed transfers, and minimizing transfer time would be a goal of the project.
- If a private partner was brought in to implement the project, they would be contracted to achieve the travel time and transfer goals
- The planning would include connecting bus services
- The hub stations would be planned including development in the station area that could help pay for the transportation infrastructure
- The implementation would be overseen by a public agency that had experience doing many such projects
But in the Bay Area of today, few of these things are happening.
- The lead public agency represents a single county instead of a regional perspective.
- The public agency in the lead role is a county bus agency with minimal experience with major rail projects, only if you count Caltrain electrification which is being managed by a sister agency
- The scope of the project may largely be driven by a major employer and private infrastructure developer
- Plans to enhance bus service on the corridor are being coordinated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with no direct link to the rail project
- It is not clear whether connecting bus services will be within the scope of this project. SamTrans’ recent feasibility study indicated that there would be a need for bus service parallel to the train tracks, because timed connections would not be feasible.
- A study to consider hub stations for East Bay / Mega-regional transit connections is being coordinated by the Alameda County Transportation Commission, on a timeline that is different from the timeline of the Dumbarton Rail project.
- Improving end to end travel time for riders who start in further locations in toward Sacramento and the Central Valley seems likely to be outside of the scope of this project
With the Dumbarton Rail project as it is today, one link in a transit network is being planned separately from the other components of the network, without a strong coordinating function to put the needs and goals of passengers at the forefront, and without a highly experienced public agency overseeing the private partner in a public private partnership.
Because of the disclosure requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, the public will soon have more detailed information about the potential scope of project options. However, CEQA is not designed to foster coordinated planning to achieve the environmental benefits of sustainable transportation.
The goal of a CEQA Environmental Impact Report is primarily to study negative environmental impacts, such as harms to the endangered wildlife that live in the Bay and wetlands ecosystems, and potential impacts on people near the project affected by project noise and other such impacts, and to mitigate such negative impacts. The goal of CEQA is not to assess the potential environmental benefits of taking tens of thousands of cars off the road, or to optimize the project design to maximize the convenience and effectiveness of this as a transit corridor or as an investment with broad social benefits.
Given the current process, what is the likelihood that all of the pieces will come together flawlessly, and the end result will be seamless regional and megaregional journeys, efficiently connected at well designed hubs at the center of thriving mixed use neighborhoods, providing competitive travel options that help many passengers easily get from homes to jobs and other destinations? A lot of good fortune will be needed to make this happen with our current system, where different pieces of the puzzle are being assembled separately.
Still, it is possible for transit advocates to use upcoming key moments in the process to ask good questions about the effects of key factors, such as hub stations, transfer times, bus connections, on the eventual ridership levels and environmental benefits. The lead agency for the project is at least required to answer the questions that are asked by the public.
But informed community members asking good questions to help agencies prepare an Environmental Impact Report is a faint and pale shadow of a strong and coherent planning process.
The Bay Area urgently needs clear regional public sector transportation leadership to make sure projects like the Dumbarton Corridor are planned as a part of a seamless, convenient regional system.