Click photo to enlarge
As cars zoom by on the four-lane expressway leading to and from the Dumbarton Bridge. (Konstandinos Goumenidis / File Photo)

Already slowed by mounting costs and a looming legal tussle, a $600 million project to connect the East Bay to the Peninsula with a Caltrain rail bridge is in danger of stalling in its tracks.

Last week came a critical Santa Clara County civil grand jury report titled, "Dumbarton Rail Bridge Project -- Do we need it?" Now the regional commission that holds its purse strings may transfer $91 million to a proposed extension of BART toward San Jose.

Officially, the project is still chugging ahead, with trains scheduled to begin running between Newark and Menlo Park in 2012. Backers believe it will eventually be an essential cog in the Bay Area's transit network, easing the traffic and environmental problems created by the droves of Peninsula workers who commute from the less-expensive East Bay.

But the setbacks have supporters lowering their expectations and critics circling like buzzards. Realistically, those involved say, it's shaping up to be a long haul.

"This project, like many other big capital projects, is struggling to get off the ground," said Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which plans and finances regional transit projects.

There are many reasons for the difficulty.

They start with the price tag, which in the course of the planning process has doubled from the original estimate of $300 million. Voters approved $135 million in Dumbarton Bridge toll revenues for the rail project in 2004, but there's no plan to make up the gap that has emerged since.

To complicate matters, the Union Pacific Railroad owns part of the line and doesn't appear eager to sell. Then there are residents in Menlo Park and other cities who are concerned about noise. Others aren't pleased that the service would initially be only westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening, rendering it useless for the minority who commute in the reverse direction.

Added to their voices are those of critics who believe there are more efficient ways to ease Dumbarton Bridge freeway traffic, such as an express bus lane or an electric light-rail system. Menlo Park City Council Member Heyward Robinson questions the wisdom of building an "old style, heavy rail" extension just as Caltrain is looking to electrify the rest of its line.

Besides, he noted, traffic jams on the Dumbarton Bridge have died down since the project started gaining momentum in the dot-com era. "I think it is appropriate for everybody to step back for a second and ask, 'Is this the best thing we could be doing with the dollars we have?'"

The anonymous, citizen-led Santa Clara County civil grand jury honed in on those issues in a June 4 report. It cited a study from 2004 that estimated daily ridership on the line would be just 12,800 by 2030.

Calling the rail bridge's benefits "questionable," the grand jury urged the county's Valley Transportation Authority to reconsider its $44 million commitment to the project. The VTA has 90 days to craft an official response to the recommendations.

The rail bridge's supporters put little stock in the report.

Malcolm Dudley, a longtime Atherton official who has been fighting for a Dumbarton train since before the freeway bridge was built, said it would be shortsighted to cut back on funding now.

"To talk about it as a train between Union City and this side of the Bay is missing the point," he said. "This is about interconnectivity to all rail systems. It's about connecting up (the Peninsula) with BART, the Altamont Commuter Express, the Capitol Corridor."

Sue Lempert, the former San Mateo mayor who sits on the MTC and several other transportation boards, recalled that a previous civil grand jury in Santa Clara County blasted the rival BART-to-San Jose extension.

"Grand juries change," she noted wryly.

Liz Kniss, a Santa Clara County supervisor who chairs the VTA, questioned the grand jury's reliance on a 2007 study that found "low ridership potential" for the proposed Dumbarton line.

"Gas prices were much lower when that study was done," she said. "In the last couple of months, our ridership is up, and interest in any kind of rail project has risen dramatically."

Still, Kniss agrees with the grand jury that Dumbarton shouldn't be the county's top transit priority. Rather, it's the extension of BART to San Jose, a huge undertaking for which the county is exploring a funding measure on the November ballot.

That can't go forward without BART first being extended to a proposed station in Fremont's Warm Springs district, another long-planned project that stands just $144 million short of its funding goal.

Therein lies the latest threat to the Dumbarton plans.

In a report issued Thursday, the MTC divided big regional transit projects into four tiers based on how close they are to being fully planned and funded. Warm Springs extension was in the high-priority second tier, along with the BART Oakland airport connector and Caltrain electrification.

Dumbarton rail landed in the bottom tier, for "projects with a capital shortfall greater than 50 percent of total cost."

The discrepancy led MTC staff to recommend diverting $91 million in Dumbarton toll money to close the gap on the Warm Springs project. In theory, the money would be repaid later from a separate funding pool.

"The idea is to put the money we have into the projects that are ready to go right away," said Doug Kimsey, the MTC's planning director. "We don't want to just be holding money back waiting for projects to move along."

The scheme got mixed reviews at an MTC meeting Thursday in Oakland.

Union City Mayor Mark Green, a leader on the Dumbarton rail policy committee, argued losing the money would be a huge blow to the project, hindering negotiations with Union Pacific.

San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said she sees the logic but thinks it's premature to divert funds to Warm Springs with BART-to-San Jose still in doubt. She also wonders whether the money would be repaid.

But Warm Springs backers feel it's about time they were on the receiving end. They're still waiting for $145 million that was borrowed from their project to pay for BART's San Francisco Airport extension, which opened in 2004 and has fallen drastically short of revenue projections.

"I think there's a history of moving money around to get these major public works projects built," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. "I think it will be paid back, and that will someday put (Dumbarton rail) in a position where it becomes the number one priority."

The MTC's board will be asked to make a decision on the plan at its next meeting on July 9.

E-mail Will Oremus at woremus@dailynewsgroup.com.

BY THE NUMBERS
A look at the key figures in the Dumbarton Rail Corridor plan to connect Caltrain to the East Bay:
6: Number of trains that would run across the bridge daily. They would leave Newark in the morning, with three heading north from Menlo Park and three south. They would return along the same route in the evening.
2012: Year construction is supposed to be complete. Delays could prolong that indefinitely.
12,800: Number of people who would ride the train daily by 2030, according to projections from 2004. Supporters believe high gas prices could significantly increase that number.
$600 million: Latest cost projection. Less than half that money is available, and there's no plan for where to find the rest.
$91 million: Amount that the MTC is considering loaning from Dumbarton rail to help pay for an extension of BART to Fremont's Warm Springs district, a step toward an eventual San Jose extension.