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Blog: The Dumbarton Railroad Corridor Story

The New York Times dubs the Dumbarton Railroad Corridor fiasco a "political dysfunction in the region". What exactly happened there?

Some of America's greatest engineering feats were achieved in under six years; the 2,000 miles of the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), Hoover Dam (1936), SF Bay Bridge (1936), or Golden Gate Bridge (1937). And then there are projects like the Dumbarton Railroad Corridor (DRC), Caltrain's Downtown Rail Extension (DTX), El Camino Real Bike Lanes, or the Bay2Sea trail - projects that seem to make a lot of sense are always pushed out for another five to 10 years.

The latest example, of course, being El Camino Real. For over 30 years, San Mateo County (through C/CAG) has been promising safety upgrades to El Camino Real. And yet again nothing will happen before 2028, and of course there is no guarantee anything will happen in 2028 either. 

The Dumbarton Railroad Bridge (1910) is the oldest Bay Crossing we have; it was completed in less than five years. The final train crossed in 1982, but a lot of people have since expressed interest and excitement about reviving the old railroad line. Families might dream of a bigger and cheaper house in Fremont and also hope for a better school district. Some imagine that the Peninsula could outsource its affordable housing needs to Fremont. Silicon Valley employers might consider replacing expensive company shuttle services with publicly funded trains. And then there are public transit enthusiasts, who just want to see a few more connections between BART and Caltrain.

So if the project made so much sense to many, why could the SamTrans Board of Directors - which is ultimately in charge of the project - never pull the trigger and get this project done? The timeline of this project might reveal a few clues. It does look mighty weird for such a project.

Timelines of projects that our leaders want to get done follow a certain pattern:

  • Initial, very basic study
  • Starter budget created
  • Project starts against all public opposition
  • Hope for more budget later
  • Project will cost more time and money than originally intended, but it will be completed

The Dumbarton Railroad pattern looks completely different:

  • An expensive study is done
  • Consultants are making a plan
  • Leadership is searching for budget
  • Whenever success is close, project team starts a new study

Several times over the last 30 years it looked like the project could start. But each and every time, instead of starting, the leadership team just issued another expensive study, which always came back with a much higher estimate. And often, the new estimate easily doubled the previous one:

1994: SamTrans buys right-of-way for $7M
1998: Reactivating Dumbarton rail service will cost $50M
1999: New Dumbarton Rail Corridor Study increased the cost to $130M
2000: San Mateo County Grand Jury report counter-recommends pursuing the project
2001: DRC is now one of MTC's 19 high-priority rail and bus projects in the Bay Area. The cost is estimated at $129M of which 91% had been secured.
2004: MTC releases new draft plan (Transportation 2030) which doubled the cost estimates to $278M
2006: With the passage of RM2, construction was scheduled to start (but it obviously didn't)
2008: $300M of funding was secured, but the estimated price went to $600M
2008: Santa Clara County Grand Jury report counter-recommends pursuing the project
2008: Funds from DRC are moved to BART projects as "loan" (but are never paid back)
2014: MTC redirects remaining money from the DRC projects to Caltrain Electrification and to Dumbarton Express Busses
2017: With Facebook on board, a new study was released with a cost estimate of $1.6B
2019: Facebook proposes to invest $1B for the project between 2022-2029
2020: A new study places the price tag at >$3B, which made Facebook rethink their commitment
2021: The studies become weirder and weirder, the latest includes Autonomous Vehicle Transit (AVT) pods
2021: Political leadership blames Facebook for the end of the project
2023: New York Times blames political leadership instead

Where do you see studies conducted by the same consulting company that come back with one price during one year and with double the price, the next year? This is not the pattern you would ever see in a successful project plan; this pattern looks very self-sabotaging. We can be fairly sure the New York Times didn't render their verdict about political dysfunction lightly. They did plenty of interviews and went through hundreds of pages of public record. And just looking at this pattern of futility, it's not too hard to see how the Times would come to that sort of conclusion.

Was SamTrans ever interested in creating that connection when they bought the right-of-way in 1994 or did they just want to block some public or private competitor? 

The answer might lie in a San Mateo County Grand Jury report from 2000. At the time, the price tag was around $130M with $60M already funded. But the Grand Jury recommendation went against the project, saying "The grand jury finds the benefits do not justify spending $60,000,000. This amount, roughly 46% of the $130,000,000 total, is not proportional to the county's benefit relative to Alameda and Santa Clara Counties. Nearly 100% of riders will come from Alameda County and more than half of the riders are destined for Santa Clara County businesses. Thus, the benefit of this project for San Mateo County, adding up the source or destination points for riders, is less than 25%."

Their study also estimated that the operating cost would be $5,500,000 per year, but yearly revenues from fares would only be $1,500,000

A year later, SamTrans leaders secured 91% of the funding, but still wouldn't start the project. If county leadership really wanted the project done, that was the time to do it. But it looked like they liked to keep the idea of a railroad alive to secure more tax measures; they preferred, however, to follow the Grand Jury's recommendation against pursuing it.

In the end, if the project faltered because of political dysfunction, or if leadership never wanted it in the first place, it might not matter that much. It's more important to see some of the same patterns of futility and overspending in other Caltrain projects like DTX or High Speed Rail (HSR). 

And even if San Mateo's leadership is not interested in reviving the railroad, they could still do us all a favor and implement the Dumbarton Corridor Bike/Ped path, that has also been promised multiple times. This would connect several Communities of Concerns (CoCs) to Downtown Redwood City and the SF Bay Trail.

The money is there, the space is there, safety is established, all it requires is the political will to finish a real Transportation Equity project.

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