By Noel T. Braymer
The Dumbarton Rail Bridge is a crossing on San Francisco Bay between the cities of Fremont and Redwood City. It was bought years ago along with the right of way connecting it to the tracks of Caltrain by San Mateo County. This bridge provided a connection from the Peninsula to the East Bay and on to the northern San Joaquin Valley into downtown San Francisco. The bridge has been idle for years and part of it destroyed by fire. As other more glamorous and expensive transportation projects got funded, the Dumbarton Rail Bridge was ignored largely due to indifference by Alameda County, causing funding for it to be shifted to other projects. Is this about to change?
Recently in a post on the website Green Caltrain, it reported interest by Facebook for public use the right of way for the Dumbarton Bridge for transportation. No specific mode of transportation was mentioned. Facebook has offices that could be served by this right of way. The reality is the Bay Area has major traffic problems and a shortage of affordable housing. These issues add to the traffic problems in the region as the economy of ‘Silicon Valley continues to grow. Finally, it may be the right time to rebuild the Dumbarton Bridge and connect the rights of way between Redwood City and Fremont to carry more people from the East Bay and San Joaquin Valley in a few years and not decades.
A major question is: which agency would run trains between the Peninsula and the East Bay and to where? Caltrain has its hand full now just keeping up with traffic growth between San Jose and San Francisco. The logical operator of such a service would be the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE). ACE now runs a handful of trains between Stockton and San Jose. For this to happen however will require more resources than ACE currently has. It would have to be funded on a regional basis.
ACE is planning to run additional service by 2022 between Merced and San Jose. This would connect to High Speed Rail service at Merced which will run by 2022 to Burbank. With additional track work, equipment and crews, it would be possible to run additional trains between the upper San Joaquin Valley and the Peninsula. This would open up more new housing for commuters to “Silicon Valley”. It will also make it easier for people to travel between the northern San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area.
The big question is after trains get across the Dumbarton Rail Bridge, where does it go from there? From Redwood City it would be possible using the Caltrain tracks to continue on to San Francisco International Airport at Millbrae and on to downtown San Francisco. This brings up the issue of track congestion, since this would mean these potential ACE trains would be sharing this very busy railroad with expanded Caltrain and High Speed Rail service in the future. A third track for much or all of the railroad from Redwood City to San Francisco at the very least would be needed. The problem of adding tracks on this railroad is not from lack of right of way in most places. The opposition to adding tracks has mostly come from residents living in the areas of Palo Alto and Atherton. The Caltrain right of way from Redwood City north bypasses the areas where the major opposition to adding additional tracks is coming from.
So where in San Francisco would the ACE trains go to? The under construction Transbay Terminal is out of the question because of the tunnels used to get in and out of it require electrification. But there is still the current Caltrain terminal at 4th and Townsend. This station now has excellent Light Rail service, many buses and the area around it is growing and attracting new development. If ACE were extended to San Francisco should it make all of Caltrains stops? It could, but given the longer distance traveled by ACE passengers and a much faster future electrified Caltrain, it would be better to use the stations now served by Caltrain’s Baby Bullet trains. This is all the more reason to build a 3rd track between Redwood City and San Francisco to operate this service. How would this compare in costs to building a new Bay Tunnel for BART? Both in terms of cost and time to build? Much less for both time and cost.
But, before we get too carried away, this is still far from being a done deal. The question remains: Who is going to pay for this? San Joaquin County which is the home for ACE won’t be able to fund such an extension on its own. This is much more of a regional issue than a local one for ACE service. For such a service to work will need connections State wide with BART,Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, SF MUNI and High Speed Rail. Direct service connectivity by rail between Merced, the East Bay area and San Francisco will go a long way to increase ridership on the High Speed Rail trains. The sooner High Speed Rail has connections to San Francisco and the broader Bay Area, the sooner we can get the whole High Speed Rail system built. State, regional and Federal Dollars should be used to get ACE over the Dumbarton Bridge and over to San Francisco. This will still cost a fraction of the high-ticket items under construction now in the Bay Area and feed additional traffic to all existing rail services. This could be built in a fraction of the time and cost of most transportation projects because the right of way to do this already exits and is owned by the public west of Fremont.