Facebook is reconsidering its commitment to pay for studies to help plan for a new rail line across the Bay, a company official confirmed Thursday, May 21.
"In light of COVID-19, we are reassessing this long-term commitment as we focus our attention on addressing the immediate needs of people in the community struggling with the economic impacts of the pandemic," said Juan Salazar, director of local policy and community engagement for Facebook, in a written statement.
Facebook had partnered with the Plenary Group, a public infrastructure investor and developer, and SamTrans, the local public transportation agency that owns the right-of-way for the Dumbarton rail line, to study how it might be reactivated to create a public transit option that crosses the Bay south of BART. Their goal was to accelerate the environmental review process for a proposal to rebuild the Dumbarton rail line and create a second mass transit option across the Bay between Redwood City and Newark.
Their partnership, called "Cross Bay Transit Partners," was set to, over 18 to 24 months, conduct the state and federal environmental impact analyses, as well as a fiscal impact analysis, to determine if it would be feasible to rebuild the defunct transbay rail line. (The first Dumbarton rail bridge was opened in 1910 but fell into disrepair and was heavily damaged in a fire in 1998.)
While Facebook may be reconsidering its commitment, Plenary Group is still committed, the company confirmed.
"There is a significant need and growing support for efforts to re-activate the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. Plenary remains committed to exploring various options for continuing the critical predevelopment work that is well underway," said Executive Chairman Dale Bonner in a written statement.
The project has been a priority for San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum for more than five years, and the project itself has been under consideration for at least 30, he said in an email.
"I remain positive about the future for this important regional mobility project," he said. "This is such an important project. It has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, (reduce) traffic congestion, improve the quality of life for commuters and much more."
The reason Facebook is reassessing its commitment now is because it is more focused on addressing more immediate community needs, according to Facebook spokesperson Chloe Meyere.
The company has channeled millions into programs supporting local small businesses, food security, emergency homelessness prevention, internet access for students, and news organizations (including The Almanac's parent company, Embarcadero Media). Facebook has also invested in other traffic relief efforts like the Highway 101 managed lanes construction project, she added.
If Facebook stops funding the effort, it's not yet clear where the needed funds to move the project forward would come from, said Seamus Murphy, chief communications officer for the San Mateo County Transit District, or SamTrans.
"This project has tremendous potential to secure construction funding and to provide game-changing traffic relief on one of the region’s most congested commute corridors. To do that, the project needs to be included in the region’s transportation plan and environmental review needs to be complete. That cannot happen without continued private sector investment in the planning process," he said in an email.
Once the project has gone through an environmental impact analysis and been declared "shovel ready," there are a number of funding resources that are ready to help shoulder the cost of the major infrastructure project, Murphy added in an interview.
The project is about to begin scoping sessions, or a series of community outreach efforts aimed at collecting input on what topics should be studied in the environmental analysis. The current timeline is to complete the outreach and come up with a locally preferred alternative by spring of 2021, and then by fall of 2021 determine which mitigations need to be adopted for that locally preferred alternative to move forward, he said.
Right now, there are some questions about what transit ridership and demand are going to look like as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, he admitted. But, he emphasized, those questions are temporary. So long as the Bay Area continues to grow and add jobs, he said, "There's going to be a point in our future where congestion returns to our streets, roads and highways. In order to address that congestion, we will need to have transit be a viable option for commuters and travelers."
"We think that the right move is to stay invested and committed to finishing the environmental review of this project so that it can move on to the next phase," he added.