The Valley Link commuter light rail system aiming to directly connect BART to Livermore and the San Joaquin Valley likely won't see its first trains run until at least 2027, three years later than initially estimated, as regional officials are now planning on less funding from the state in the short term.
That according to the project's final feasibility report, which was adopted last week by the Tri-Valley/San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority Board of Directors.
The wide-ranging report, which concludes the multibillion-dollar transit project is achievable, also increases the cost estimates with new contingencies and updates ridership figures that could necessitate more frequent trains in medium-term than initially planned.
But the new project timetable marks the first significant schedule shift for the regional agency that had eyed an aggressive construction plan since it was formed two summers ago.
Even as recently as July, the authority cited an opening date of 2024. New funding realities have forced officials to push that timeline out to between the second quarter of 2027 and fourth quarter 2028.
"The schedule is basically driven by funding," Michael Tree, executive director of the Regional Rail Authority, told the Weekly on Monday morning.
"Originally we had anticipated that the state would have more rail funding that it would program in the upcoming funding cycle. However, over the last few months they have announced funding levels that are well below what they have done in the past," Tree said. "With that said, we have put into the Valley Link funding plan less anticipated funding for the project from the state and the need for new local funding."
Mayor Jerry Thorne, who represents Pleasanton on the authority's board, added, "The schedule was bumped a few years to accommodate emerging and likely proposed sales tax measures in the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley (such as "FASTER Bay Area"), in combination with funding from the state."
Thorne, like other members of the regional board, also pointed to the importance of the feasibility report as keeping the project on the track toward a reality.
"From Pleasanton's perspective the Valley Link feasibility report is important because it identifies that the Valley Link passenger rail project is in fact feasible to advance into further study and development. This occurs specifically with the environmental work for the project that is underway and anticipated to be out for public comment in draft form by the end of the calendar year," he told the Weekly.
Valley Link was borne from state legislation passed in 2018 that cleared the way for a regional joint powers authority to develop a transit concept as an alternative when BART in May 2018 declined to move forward with the extension of conventional BART to Livermore, as had long been contemplated.
Valley Link aims to connect the communities of the San Joaquin Valley to the Dublin-Pleasanton BART Station, with connections to the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) rail system. The governing board consists of council members, supervisors and directors of the Tri-Valley and San Joaquin Valley regions.
The concept centers on multiple-unit trains that utilize self-propelled cars with a hybrid engine traveling along primarily Alameda County right-of-way to the county line in the Interstate 580 median, the former Southern Pacific Railroad corridor over the Altamont Pass and in or near the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way in San Joaquin Valley.
Phase 1 of Valley Link would connect the Dublin-Pleasanton station to the ACE North Lathrop Station, with stops at Isabel and Greenville (ACE) in Livermore, Mountain House, downtown Tracy and River Islands.
A second phase would extend service from North Lathrop to the ACE and Amtrak Stockton Station.
Assembly Bill 758, which created the Regional Rail Authority, required a project feasibility report to be made available for public input by July 1, a task the regional board completed on June 12.
A public comment period followed, through July 31, after which the authority completed the final draft for board consideration. The directors approved the final report during its meeting Oct. 9 in Tracy.
"The fact that we received 144 public comments on the feasibility report shows the level of public interest in this vital project," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who serves as chair of the authority board.
"All of the comments received were thoughtfully considered and resulted in a number of modifications from the initial plan to the final feasibility report that the board adopted today," he added in a written statement.
The final report also adjusts the Phase 1 cost estimates, with a range of $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion in today's dollars, increase to as much as $2.4 billion to $3.2 billion at the time of construction with inflation.
"The board is still looking to deliver the project for under $2 billion," Tree said. "However, we felt that this early in the project, at the 15% design stage, the project should have additional contingency for unknowns and so we layered in an unallocated contingency and created a range of costs for the project."
He also noted that the board decided the report should plan for a 12-minute headway for trains in 2040 in all instances, instead of 24 minutes in the San Joaquin Valley section -- 12-minute headways were always planned in the Tri-Valley portion.
In Thorne's view, Valley Link remains a viable option to help commuters coming to and through the Tri-Valley, as well as supporting Pleasanton businesses by providing a public transit option for Central Valley employees and the environment by taking cars off the road.
"There are more than 86,000 commuters a day making that trip and that number is estimated to grow 75% by 2040. I'm not sure how you can fit a 75% increase in traffic, much at peak time, on the I-580," Thorne said. "With Valley Link these commuters will have a rail option that connects them more easily with employers in Pleasanton and with the BART system for those that are traveling beyond Pleasanton."
Tracy Councilwoman Veronica Vargas summed it up in the authority's statement last Friday: "The commute over the Altamont is one of the worst in the United States and this rail line will give another alternative to the 87,000 commuters who make that trip daily."
The final feasibility report can be accessed online at valleylinkrail.com.