SamTrans to revisit busway on Dumbarton Corridor

On the agenda for the SamTrans Board of Directors July 10, 2024 meeting is an action item to request funding for a study of putting a busway on Dumbarton Rail Corridor. Unlike the previous attempts that considered bus and rail options (including pods) through the entire corridor from Fremont/Newark to Redwood City, this time the agency is only looking to build a busway on the San Mateo County side between Redwood City and East Palo Alto, on the rail right of way that the agency owns.

SamTrans staff believes that at the moment a transbay rail project wouldn’t have sufficient demand and would be too expensive to undertake. According to the agency, most of the travel demand is within the West Bay and the proposed busway would run through disadvantaged communities where residents would benefit from better bus service. However, the project wouldn’t preclude a future rail project to the East Bay. SamTrans expects the study and environmental documents would be done in 2028 and, if project is approved for construction, the busway would be ready in 2032. The study will also identify smaller quick build elements that could be delivered sooner.

A presentation slide in the agenda packet
Everything About the Dumbarton Rail Project Explained in 30 minutes – by Banks Rail

The failure of getting a rail project approved for the Dumbarton corridor has been very well documented. I remember all those years as a college-age transit activist sitting in meetings where elected officials discussed now important it was. Despite studies after studies, the corridor ended up with only a small fleet of new buses for the Dumbarton Express as most of the funding was diverted away. We thought that Facebook’s involvement would be the key, but then COVID-19 changed everything and Facebook said sayonara in 2021.

If we decide to only wait for the right opportunity to get a rail project planned, funded, and constructed, the corridor could be left unused for another decade or more. In views of SamTrans, an unused right of way is a mobility barrier. For a long time, there hasn’t been any serious improvement for buses in the area as all the major east-west roads through Atherton, Menlo Park, and Downtown Palo Alto have a two lane only segment, and the freeway interchanges at 101 are often clogged during rush hours. Currently, local and transbay buses get stuck behind single occupancy cars in a single file queue. The busway on the rail corridor, just on the West Bay alone, would significantly speed up local and transbay buses and make transit a competitive, if not a preferred choice in a low density, suburban environment.

In many ways, this is similar to the SURF busway project in Monterey County, which is proposing to use an inactive rail right of way between Marina and Sand City, with existing tracks to remain to preserve future option for passenger rail service. Back in the late 1990s, the Monterey branch rail corridor was considered for intercity trains from the Bay Area. Later the plan was revised to run diesel light rail in 2010, but neither plans have gone forward.

I recall in 1999, I rode on a demonstration train from the Bay Area to Monterey with other rail advocates and public officials. Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) sponsored the demonstration train in hopes of getting funds to purchase the right of way, which it did, and getting funds to run trains, which it failed. Because of the poor track condition, the train was running about 10 mph on the branch line after leaving the main line in Castroville. The agency transported us on buses for the return trip because of the slow track speed for trains.

Peninsula Rail 2000 newsletter article about the demonstration train to Monterey in 1999.

Although the SURF busway project has been environmentally cleared and is later exempted, as well as approved for federal “small starts” grants, project opponents (which include rail fans) are trying to stop the project late in the game by appealing to the California Coastal Commission, which has a controversial record of blocking/delaying bike lanes and affordable housing in urbanized coastal communities. If without the political/administrative delays, construction could start as early as in late 2024.

In the 2017 plan for the Dumbarton corridor, a busway on rail right of way alternative was considered and issues were raised during the planning process. This time, planners should look into the 2017 plan and build upon that.

  • Bike advocates wanted a bike path on the rail corridor along side with busway, but last plan rejected that because staff claimed that bike + bus + rail wouldn’t fit on the right of way, but I consider the width assumption to be conservative.
  • A direct connection between the busway and express lanes on 101 would make the project immensely useful.
  • Opening up busway to private commuter shuttles (for a fee) would improve utility and finances, as the transit agency would collect tolls for a part of the service on the busway rather than subsidizing all of it.
  • A proper transit center with off-street facility and bike/micromobility parking along the corridor would encourage intermodal ridership, as surrounding cities are continuing to build out the bike lane network and little appetite to increase road capacity for automobiles.
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Busway interchange at 101 Express Lanes in 2017 plan.

This shorter, smaller project has a better chance to progress by keeping the project completely within San Mateo County and not having to deal with the complexity of building a new structure across the bay, coordinating with Union Pacific, and getting political support from East Bay cities. This is also the kind of projects that are eligible for federal “small start” grants and may qualify for CEQA exemption via SB922 (Wiener). Although there may be some stubborn rail fans oppose to building a busway next to rail tracks, at least the state coastal commission has no jurisdiction on the Dumbarton Corridor, so one less source for delays.