The Alameda County Transportation Commission approved the transfer of $400 million in funding once earmarked for the failed BART to Livermore plan to ValleyLink, a proposed rail project that would connect the Tri-Valley to San Joaquin County.

“It’s time to move ahead. Let’s make this happen,” Dublin Mayor David Haubert said. The expenditure is nowhere near enough to fund the entire rail project’s first phase, which has an estimated cost of between $2.8 billion and 3.1 billion. “This funding is meant to be seed funding to attract additional funding. It’s the perfect opportunity to move ahead.”

The Alameda CTC oversees countywide transportation issues, and includes all five Alameda County supervisors, representatives from 13 Alameda County cities (two from Oakland), along with BART and AC Transit.

The commission was nearly unanimous in their support of the ValleyLink project on Thursday, despite a strange amalgam of opposition from the Sierra Club, along with various anti-tax and right-wing groups. The vote was 18-2, with one abstention. 

AC Transit’s representative voted no, as did BART Board Director Rebecca Saltzman, who represents Oakland. Albany Mayor Nick Pilch abstained. 

Both raised similar concerns over the speed of the commission’s move to begin funding ValleyLink with money derived from Measure BB, a 30-year half-cent countywide sales increase approved by voters in 2014 that is estimated to generate $8 billion in funding for transportation. 

Both Saltzman and Pilch said their stances did not mean they don’t support the project, but they urged the commission to table Thursday’s discussion until an Environmental Impact Report is complete. “There is no urgency. Studies will be done,” Saltzman said. “I just want to see the outcome of them.” 

Emeryville Councilmember John Bauters, who is also the Alameda CTC vice-chair, argued there is no precedent for the commission to hold up transportation projects before an EIR is received. “I think that’s a very dangerous precedent,” he said.

The proposed ValleyLink project would connect the East Dublin/Pleasanton BART station with a site in Livermore once envisioned for a BART station and then toward North Lathrop. But dreams of BART extended to Livermore were dashed two years ago after the BART board, including Saltzman, narrowly voted against the $1.6 billion extension. The focus then turned to ValleyLink.

“The best way for us to combat climate change is to get cars off the road,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arregiun said. “BART to Livermore is not happening. This is a way of achieving that goal.

In addition, he added, with rising housing costs and more people moving away from urban areas, “We have to prepare for the mega-region.”

The Sierra Club is opposed to ValleyLink, despite the potential environmental benefits of removing an estimated 42,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from the often congested Interstate 580 corridor through the Altamont Pass. They believe the rail project will encourage further sprawl in East Alameda County and San Joaquin County with additional roadtrips.

Additional concerns that the project would feature diesel trains may have been placated by comments on Thursday from Michael Tree, ValleyLink’s executive director. The agency is studying a number of trains, including those fueled by a hybrid diesel engine, electric, and potentially hydrogen, Tree said. “It’s obvious from comments by the commission that it would be a zero-emission train,” he added.

Aside from concerns of anti-tax groups, other opponents contend the rail project will be paid by Alameda County taxpayers, but will disproportionately benefit San Joaquin County residents.

There is support for ValleyLink in the Tri-Valley, but the issue has dominated nearly every campaign forum and debate this election cycle, including the high-profile race for the Alameda County supervisor in District 1 between Haubert and Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon. Haubert, like his neighboring mayors, has registered strong support for ValleyLink. Bacon, however, have offered tepid support for the rail project, offering to further study the proposal.