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Oakland Port Rail Proposal’s Impacts May Hit Berkeley Landscape, Traffic

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

Is Berkeley being railroaded? That’s the question that was raised at the last Planning Commission meeting by both supporters and potential foes of a plan to upgrade and increase rail service through West Berkeley. 

Some Richmond residents are also feeling that they’re on the other side of the tracks because of proposed routing of more mile-long trains through their city, disrupting access to neighborhoods like Marina Bay. 

Concerns in Berkeley were raised by an April 10 decision by the California Transportation Commission awarding the Port of Oakland $74 million to begin the process of upgrading a 37-mile stretch of Union Pacific Rail lines between Oakland and Martinez. 

That sum was part of a larger $456 million allocation—requested backing for rail upgrades reaching from the Tehachapi Mountains in the south to Donner Summit in the east—all designed to speed the move of goods through Northern California’s premier seaport. 

The immediate focus of the port’s $74 million grant is the improvement of a 6.6-mile stretch of the line running from the port to the Stege Marsh area in South Richmond, where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line joins with the Union Pacific. 

At the time the application was filed last year, the rails between those two points were carrying 66 trains daily, with 44 Amtrak passenger runs and the rest consisting of freight trains from the two railroads. 

If funded, the improvements would boost freight traffic from its current handling of 30 percent of the port’s container traffic to 50 percent “without bringing gridlock to the corridor,” according to the funding application. 

As the nation’s fourth busiest port, Oakland handles 99 percent of Northern California’s waterborne goods, and while Oakland handles the lion’s share of agricultural exports from the Central Valley, its volume of imports jumped more than 80 percent in the five years ending in 2006, a rate of growth eight times that of exports. 

The proposal by Oakland officials calls for doubling the number of main line rail tracks along the 6.6-mile corridor to four, anticipating an increase in size and frequency of freight trains. 

“This could have very significant impact on the community, and I want to be sure we’re all aware of it,” said Berkeley Planning Commissioner Harry Pollack, commenting on a letter on the plan submitted to the panel by Berkeley Design Advocates. 

Land Use Planning Manager Debra Sanderson said city staff had met with officials from the port a week earlier “trying to understand what’s actually being proposed.” 

“The conclusion I came away with is that nobody really knows.” she said. “Where the railroad is on this is a mystery ... but it will have a big effect on what happens in West Berkeley and how well we can protect the environment in West Berkeley.” 

Not only would all overcrossings from the bay to the High Sierra have to be rebuilt to accommodate the expanded lines, but accomplishing the project’s goal would mean coordinating actions of a number of agencies, “including the railroad, which has a habit of acting somewhat independently,” she said. 

In addition to rebuilding the overcrossings at University and Ashby avenues, the project will impact the roads in West Berkeley that cross the tracks at grade level: Gilman, Camellia, Cedar, Virginia and Addison streets and Bancroft Way and Hearst Avenue. 

“They’re also talking about closing some streets,” said Chair James Samuels. 

Funds come from the Highway Safety, Traffic Reduction, Air Quality, and Port Security Bond Act of 2006, which California voters approved on Nov. 7, 2006, when they endorsed Proposition 1B. The specific program involved is the Trade Corridor Improvement Fund.  

Just where the city would get funding for upgrading the overcrossings and grade crossings remains an open question, with the railroads unlikely to provide any of the cash, said Commissioner David Stoloff, though federal funds to supplement state funding were possible within the next three years. 

“The message is that we need to be involved in the planning process,” he said. 

Sanderson said there has been talk of reinvigorating a multi-jurisdictional planning group that had been involved early in the planning process “and becoming more proactive,” joined by all the impacted communities. 

Merilee Mitchell, a former city council candidate who often speaks during the commission’s public comment sessions, said that unlike Berkeley Design Advocates, she doesn’t want to see a joint powers group created because “they all involve the seven key groups,” agencies that include the Air Quality Management District, the Association of Bay Area Government, and the Congestion Management Agency. 

With a potential change in West Berkeley zoning regulations already under discussion by the commission, a major change in rail traffic, which could involve the railroad taking more land for right-of-way and reduced traffic access, adds yet another wrinkle to the complex policies of a part of the city under increasing development pressure. 

For more on the issue, see the Port of Oakland’s web pages at: 

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s section on Proposition 1B projects is here: 

The California Transportation Commission’s pages are here: 


Richmond woes 

Meanwhile, some Richmond residents and City Councilmember Tom Butt are sounding alarms about BNSF's plans to up the number of mile-long supertrains running along its line through that city. 

The railroad has filed a request for expedited action with the Department of Transportation in Washington to allow the company to expand the number of so-called “intermodal” trains through the city—freights carrying containers plucked from ships and trucked to rail cars atop when they are shipped across the country. 

A decision by the board means that, effective Monday, the rail line has been forced to redirect from one to two of the lengthy intermodal trains through Richmond rather than along the main Union Pacific Line. 

That in turns means that people who need to cross the grade crossing in neighborhoods like Marina Bay may be forced to wait until the long, slow trains have passed—already a subject of much irritation from existing traffic. 

Unless Washington approves the BNSF request, Richmond residents can expect even longer delays.