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Comments on Dumbarton Transportation Corridor Study

written by andy on

In August, SamTrans released a Facebook funded study of the Dumbarton Transportation Corridor. This study was a follow up to the rail project on the same corridor which was canceled due to lack of funding.

This study proposes various improvements on the highway corridor to speed up high occupancy vehicle traffic and buses, as well as to develop the rail corridor for bus and rail service.

My hope for this study is to have something that can be delivered within 5 years. In the past, there have been many studies for major improvements along the bridge corridors, but didn’t go forward because of the high costs involved. Below are my comments on the study. There are some elements that I agree with, yet there are other elements that the planners ought to consider.

Busway + rail

I agree with the direction of a busway and rail strategy. The advantage of the bus + rail is that you can get some results in the short run. Rail only option requires a significant investment, resolving difficult technical issues, and most importantly, leadership from the East Bay. If the bus alternative is chosen without rail, then the corridor is permanently off for any rail option, and I think that isn’t fair for future generations.

There’s an example of busway + rail, which is the Sodo busway south of Downtown Seattle. The busway allows buses to continue serving downtown without requiring people to switch to LRT to get to downtown.

Rail corridor

For the rail project, I think the best option for now is to preserve the corridor and defer actual implementation until the time is right. Currently on the west side, Caltrain is pursuing electrification and will be followed by blended implementation of high speed rail. In the East Bay, Union Pacific owns the rail line necessary to access BART. Altamont Corridor Express and Capitol Corridor are studying rail improvements in the area to reroute freight trains to make room for more passenger trains. I don’t think the time is ripe for Dumbarton rail until at least some of these improvements are complete.

There’s also governance issue that needs to be resolved, because without dedicated tracks, there’s only so much capacity that would be available for passenger trains in the East Bay. The various agencies that run passenger trains in the area today (including Capitol Corridor, ACE, and Caltrain) may need to be consolidated or coordinated to ensure focused capital investments and to develop an efficient operating plan.

While a plan for a rail shuttle is on the table, which could avoid some if not all the challenges explained above, I don’t think this is the best strategy. With this scenario, two or more transfers may be necessary for a trip that can be done with a single bus ride today.


As for the busway, even though the plan shows that the busway would go from Willow to Middlefield. I think where there’s value is between University and Marsh, particularly the crossing over 101.

Area west of Marsh is primarily residential. A preferred bus route to Redwood City would likely use Bay Road to access the business developments like Stanford Outpatient and Kaiser. Busway west of Marsh doesn’t add much value. It is also unlikely to assume a busway all the way to Caltrain on the rail ROW because of the limited width on the Caltrain side.

The point of having a busway over 101 is to have transit avoiding the traffic backup associated with the freeway interchanges with 101.

An advantage with a busway is that it can be used by local bus service as well as private employee buses hired by major employers. Even though some may think the private buses are elitist, I think it is beneficial because, unlike rail, these buses do not incur operating expenses for the transit agency. These employers can pay to run buses on the busway, or be allowed to use it for free like HOV lanes, due to their ability to reduce traffic. The transit agency, on the other hand, can focus resources on serving markets that cannot be met by the private sectors, such as areas with cluster of small businesses and low income workers.

Currently, congestion on streets intersecting with 101 (Willow and University) is causing delays and poor on time performance for local bus routes between Caltrain/El Camino and the North Menlo Park/East Palo Alto area. According to the current bus timetables, it takes 10-15 minutes longer to travel across 101 for routes like 296 and 281 at peak times. If a busway is available across 101, local routes can take advantage of the dedicated lanes to provide a faster and more reliable service. For example, line 276 from Redwood City can be extended to EPA using the busway.

Some residents in the area think that buses don’t belong to the neighborhood, but I disagree. The fact is that Belle Haven and East Palo Alto are one of the most transit dependent areas in San Mateo County. SamTrans devotes a lot of resources to serve the area. Many residents in the area depend on the bus to access employment, shopping, medical services, and education. The 15-30 minute congestion penalty riding the bus across 101 is very significant. Any major transportation improvement on the right of way, may it be bus or rail, will result in local benefits for the community. I believe that one of the measurements for any transit improvement is how much local benefit such improvement will bring. It is not good enough to improve transbay transit without addressing the local needs.

Contrary to the study, I suggest a bus only lane on the right hand shoulder on the westbound from the bridge to University Ave, where buses can make a left turn on the right lane to enter the busway, which should run adjacent to University between Bayfront and the rail right of way. That way you avoid having to build any overpass at Bayfront and Willow.

Dumbarton Local

I think there should be a “Dumbarton Local” to provide midday and weekend service. The routing at the present assume that most riders would transfer to/from BART or Caltrain, but otherwise miss the destination centers in between. A transbay local route would basically extend and connect an AC Transit route in the East Bay and a SamTrans route in the West Bay.

A possible scenario would be to extend SamTrans route 281 northward to Newark and continue to Fremont BART on the AC Transit 251 route. That bus can operate hourly weekday and weekend. Both agencies only have to contribute the incremental operating cost across the bridge, rather than an entire route.
Another local route would involve an extension of Union City’s line 1 to Ardenwood Park & Ride and continue to the West Bay.

Local fares would be available on either end of the route and local bus passes would be accepted.

Toll plaza bus bypass

As part of the Dumbarton local concept, I suggest a bus stop at the toll plaza. Westbound buses can access the toll plaza from Thornton via an access road and enter the bridge via a gated driveway past the toll booths. The reason for that is because currently buses can only access the HOV Fastrak lane from Ardenwood, while the onramp from Thornton only lead to cash lanes.

Park & Ride

A benefit of a local bus is the ability to add parking along the route. There are a couple locations where parking lots can be accommodated along Thornton (pavement partially in place, just need to repave and stripe it). One of the reasons why the bus is not fully used is the lack of parking.

Rail ROW bike/ped trail

Bike/ped trail can be accommodated along side with rail and busway. The corridor is about a 100 feet wide. 50 feet can be used for double track rail (as demonstrated by the width at some section on the Caltrain line). 40 feet is needed for a two lane busway and a trail (as demonstrated by the width on the BRT line at trail in Fort Collins, Colorado).

The Sodo busway in Seattle, which features a two lane busway, two track light rail, and a trail, is mostly less then 90 feet wide in total.

Planners claimed a need for a 65 feet right of way for rail citing an AREMA recommendation for a crash zone. This recommendation is used by freight railroads to demand a greater track distance between freight rail lines and passenger lines (dedicated commuter rail tracks or light rail tracks) in hopes to reduce liability if a derailment occurs. For example, in Sacramento, the blue line light rail has a closer distance with the freight track north of Meadowview Station. The line south of Meadowview Station, which was opened in 2015, has tracks located further away from the freight track, and had to acquire land from backyards for the light rail tracks. If such clearance is not possible, the freight railroads may demand a crash wall.

I don’t think this is necessary since the right of way is publicly owned and it is not used for mainline freight movement. Recently built FRA compliant passenger railroads only need less than 40 feet for two tracks, even with electrification.

Also, since the area adjacent to the track would likely be a busway or a trail, the damage from a derailment would be less compared to a building.

In some parts of the Dumbarton rail corridor, there’s class I trail adjacent or nearby that would negate the need for a trail in that section. In other parts, parallel streets make the busway on the right of way unnecessary. So overall, all the three modes can be accommodated.