Plan to Double West Berkeley Rail Lines Fades With Economy

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:01:00 PM

A plan to double the number of rail lines through West Berkeley has joined banks and car makers as a casualty of the economic crash. 

Carolyn Clevenger, planner for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), said that “with the current economy, the volume of rail traffic is down significantly, both nationally and in the East Bay. There is less urgency in expansion.” 

The MTC had announced the projected doubling of rail lines following an April 10, 2008, decision by the California Transportation Commission to award the port $74 million to begin the process of upgrading rail service between Martinez and the port. 

“The project has been downscoped significantly,” said Clevenger. 

The biggest beneficiaries of the downsizing are residents of Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood, who often find their main access to the freeway and the rest of the city blocked by mile-long freight trains. 

With the need for more rail lines removed by the restrained economy, the MTC and the state have been able to siphon off $18.975 million of the funds to bankroll half the costs of building a grade separation crossing that will allow unimpeded access to the neighborhood. 

Funding for grade separations—overpasses and underpasses in layman’s terms—is hard to find, Clevenger said. “We’re really glad to be able to help.” 

The state funds will cover half of the project’s cost, with the remainder coming from county Measure J bond revenues, City of Richmond developer fees and money from other cities in the county, she said. All of the state revenues come from Proposition 1B bond revenues, she said. 

That measure—the Highway Safety, Traffic Reduction, Air Quality, and Port Security Bond Act of 2006—was approved by California voters on Nov. 7, 2006.  

Preliminary engineering work and an environmental review are now under way, with construction set to begin in December 2010 and conclude by the end of 2013, Clevenger said. 

State transportation commissioners approved the project, officially called the Marina Bay Parkway Grade Separation Project, during their March 12 meeting in a vote that reduced funding for a package of East Bay rail corridor improvements from $175 million to $143.5 million. 

Berkeley planning commissioners had voiced concerns when they were first informed of the proposal to double the number of rail lines through West Berkeley during their May 28, 2008, meeting. 

Commission Chair James Samuels said the project could entail closing some of the streets that cross the railroad lines at grade level, putting more pressure on the existing crossings. 

Land Use Planning Manager Debra Sanderson told commissioners, “It will have a big effect on what happens in West Berkeley and how well we can protect the environment in West Berkeley.”  

In addition to rebuilding the overcrossings at University and Ashby avenues, the project would have had major impacts on roads that cross the tracks at grade level: Gilman, Camellia, Cedar, Virginia and Addison streets and Bancroft Way and Hearst Avenue.  

Word of the project’s cancellation apparently hadn’t reached Berkeley Design Advocates and Berkeley Partners for Parks, groups that have scheduled a Saturday workshop on “Visioning Urban Design and Access” around the rail line expansion. 

The invitation-only event is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

According to the invitation, the two groups “consider the railroad expansion to be a great opportunity to be the first step in reconnecting the city with its waterfront, improving traffic flow, increasing safety and providing better urban design and a better quality of life.”