The Dumbarton rail project, which local officials believe will dramatically reduce traffic congestion, faces a milestone in the coming months that could determine future funding for it.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission sometime in the first half of the year will determine which transportation projects in the Bay Area are considered top priorities and included in the long-range planning document known as Plan Bay Area 2050, which is updated every four years. In a preliminary assessment by MTC that analyzes the cost effectiveness and equity impacts of projects, Dumbarton rail received a relatively low score, said Carter Mau, deputy CEO for SamTrans, at a meeting Wednesday. That score will be one criterion that the MTC board will use to decide whether the project is included in the regional transportation plan.

Inclusion in the plan does not guarantee funding for a project, but it is a significant step in its path to becoming a reality, said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler.

“It’s factual and fair to say if you want to advance a project it’s important to get in the plan, but the project can still be advanced even if it’s unable for whatever reason to get in the plan,” he said.

If the Dumbarton project is not included in the regional plan, then it may have to wait another four years to be considered again, though the plan can be amended to include the project at any time if funding is secured. But it’s usually easier to secure funding for a project the other way around, by first declaring it a priority and including it in the plan, Rentschler said. 

Dumbarton rail is competing for limited funds with other major projects including a second transbay tube between San Francisco and Oakland for BART and the San Francisco downtown extension for Caltrain.

Needless to say, SamTrans officials want the Dumbarton rail project in the regional plan and during Wednesday’s meeting said they were committed to doing whatever they can to make that happen, namely by stressing the regional significance of the project.

“It’s critical to position this as a regional project that has a much bigger implications than the immediate area, going into the Central Valley and beyond,” said Board Member Rose Guilbault, who went on to describe Dumbarton rail as “potentially one of the most significant projects of the decade.” “If we can make all those connections in the talking points we’d get a lot more support and understanding about the project.”

Board Member Josh Powell urged his colleagues to convince individual MTC board members of the merits of the Dumbarton rail project. 

“One thing that might help is to convince individual MTC commissioners that this is interesting to them, show them the ridership projections by county, how many of their constituents will ride this and how many miles they’ll save,” he said. “That’ll drive home that this isn’t just a Peninsula and other side of the Bay project, but it’s a truly regional one.” 

The most optimistic ridership projection for a Dumbarton rail corridor is 18,000 daily riders. An estimated 60,000 people commute daily from Alameda County to San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County. 

The multi-billion-dollar project aims to connect revive the defunct rail corridor between Redwood City and Union City via Newark, crossing the Bay on a new rail bridge where the defunct one currently stands or through a tunnel. 

Last year, Facebook and Plenary Group, a developer of large-scale infrastructure projects, entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the San Mateo County Transit District, which owns the rail corridor between Redwood City and Newark, to explore the feasibility of reviving the Dumbarton rail line. The group calls itself the Cross Bay Transit Partners.

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