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Valley Link - Is it Really needed?

The Valley Link rail project, a new 42 mile, 7 station system meant to connect BART in Pleasanton/Dublin with the ACE train and several San Joaquin communities, is scheduled to commence construction in 2025. This projected $2.5 billion line was planned before Covid-19 and the developing work-from-home trend. You are already paying for Valley Link and will be asked to pay much, much more, possibly through bond issues, property tax increases, and hiked sales and gasoline taxes in the future. There are many concerns.


First, are the train cars going to run mostly empty? Ridership numbers projected in 2018-2019 no longer are valid and have always been dubious. Valley Link’s October 2019 (pre-Covid-19) Final Feasibility Report predicted 26,000-28,000 riders by 2040. Question: is that really 14,000 heading West in the morning and 14,000 heading East in the evening? How many unique riders per day? The point is, 28,000 riders doesn’t mean you’re taking 28,000 cars off the road if they’re counting a ride to and a ride from work as 2 separate people. BART and the ACE trains have seen huge drops in ridership, so much that BART is considering shutting down stations in Contra Costa County and severely cutting back or eliminating weekend and evening service. So what will be Valley Link’s true ridership numbers? They are unlikely to be anywhere near the 2019 projections.


While Tri-Valley residents will be paying a lot to support this project, most of the benefits go to San Joaquin Valley residents. One can only guess where the money will come from. The majority of funding has not been secured and likely won’t be before construction begins. The agencies involved, including supporter City of Livermore, tout the benefits for Tri-Valley residents: less traffic on the freeways (maybe, a tiny bit), reduced air pollution and lowered contributions to climate change. Admirable but insignificant. I do buy into the concepts that every little bit helps, we can’t wait for others to take care of the problems and that solutions must start locally. I can’t buy into a boutique rail project that siphons funding away from much higher impact and potentially successful alternatives.


But it’s hydrogen-powered! Green hydrogen! Hydrogen to power the trains will be produced in Tracy using solar power and grid power, the same grid that powers your home. The project’s solar arrays can’t produce anywhere near enough electricity by themselves, so a lot will be pulled from the green grid. Renewables presently supply about 35% of California’s electricity. Is there enough green grid power to go around? Yes, on a sunny, windy Saturday in April. Maybe not on a windless, 105 degree Thursday in July. What’s more, copious amounts of water are needed for hydrolysis hydrogen production. The exact sources aren’t yet apparent. What’s even more (sorry, I’ve run out of incredulous adjectives), the hydrogen train technology is new and unproven. I did find one other up-and-running system in the world, a small one in Germany. Will it work? Probably; looks good on paper. Will there be glitches? Ask any engineer working on a new technology. There will be many, many, many glitches. Expect many late and broken down trains. Riders might be taking those buses they now avoid after all.


Next, there’s a project concept problem. Much of Valley Link’s route is almost identical to the ACE train. Now we’ll have two underutilized railroads covering pretty much the same route. Maybe people aren’t riding the ACE train because there’s no connection to BART. Significantly more cost-effective alternative links could be available. For instance, a dedicated bus link between BART and the ACE train station in Livermore could provide fast, economical service.


Equity and inclusion benefits listed on Valley Link’s website are highly questionable. It’s doubtful a significant percentage of riders will be economically disadvantaged and non-English-speaking workers heading to Silicon Valley or riding BART to unskilled jobs in San Francisco. This project does however check the all-important social justice box included in every California endeavor. What’s more, lower income people will be greatly affected by raised sales taxes and the higher rents landlords will charge to offset increased property taxes.


I get it. This is a sexy, environmentally friendly dream for moving people and saving the world from global warming. From the press releases and news stories, it’s apparent every politician in the Tri-Valley wants their name on the dedication plaque. The trouble is, the system is ill-conceived and we’re picking up the bill for a project that provides little benefit in terms of traffic reduction and environmental improvement. Undoubtedly, if the history of almost every modern California project holds true, the final cost will be incrementally higher than projected. Let’s hit the brakes, as the Alameda County Taxpayers Association is trying to do, and reanalyze Valley Link to make sure we’re not getting another High Speed Rail fiasco.


Valley Link Website

Altman, L. (2022, June 9) Alameda County Taxpayers Association, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund File Lawsuit to Stop Valley Link Project, The Independent

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