Facebook's Bridge to Nowhere
The tech giant had already remade the virtual world. For a brief period, it also tried to make it easier for people in the Bay Area to get to work. Then it gave up.
Credit...Aaron Wojack for The New York Times
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By Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky is a journalist covering technology and politics.
Jan. 8, 2023
In the early summer of 2017, Warren Slocum walked into a warehouse in Menlo Park, Calif., to meet with members of Facebook's staff and was mesmerized.
Sitting before him was a 3-D model of the neighborhoods surrounding Facebook's headquarters. On a nearby white board, one of Facebook's real estate strategists had mapped out what had to be one of the company's most unusual bets yet: a plan for restoring a century-old railroad that's been sitting unused for about 40 years.
Since he became president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 2016, Mr. Slocum had been publicly advocating the rebirth of the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. This largely deserted 18-mile route runs from Union City on the east side of San Francisco Bay and crosses over the long-abandoned Dumbarton Rail Bridge before cutting straight up the back side of Facebook's sprawling Frank Gehry-designed office complex in Menlo Park and continuing up the San Francisco Peninsula to Redwood City.
The tech industry's enormous growth had clogged the roads around this route, with rush hour speeds on some major arteries creeping along at an average of 4 miles per hour in 2016. Mr. Slocum followed a long line of local officials who believed that a modern cross-bay rail system could alleviate traffic, cut down on emissions and shrink commute times for workers who couldn't afford to live nearby.
But the project needed more funding than any municipality could provide. Now, here was Mr. Slocum, meeting with a multibillion-dollar tech company at the height of its powers, which seemed inclined to help make his dream a reality. 'We just had some electric conversations about this idea,' Mr. Slocum said. He was amazed at how closely his vision aligned with Facebook's. 'I just said, 'That's it. That's what I'm talking about,'' he said.
In 2011, when Facebook arrived in Menlo Park, a city of just over 30,000 people, the company had about 3,000 employees. By the end of 2017, Facebook had more than 25,000 employees. In that time, the company had underpinned -- and helped undermine -- global elections and acquired competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp on its way to amassing billions of users in the virtual world. It had also, along with other tech companies, made getting from point A to point B in the real world a lot harder. Traffic to Silicon Valley from other parts of the Bay Area had long been a mess, of course, but what was new was Facebook's apparent interest in fixing it.
The company's leaders thought revitalizing the rail line could be a 'win-win,' said Juan Salazar, Meta's current director of local policy and community engagement, who also met with Mr. Slocum that day. 'It was something that would not just help us as a company in terms of bringing our employees in but also help the region,' Mr. Salazar said. It didn't hurt that adding a transit line in its own backyard stood to increase the value of Facebook's real estate.
Over the next three years, according to Mr. Salazar, Facebook spent nearly $20 million on plans to revive the rail corridor, hiring staff with experience in rail projects and contracting with a fleet of consultants to study the feasibility of things like electrified commuter rail and autonomous vehicle pods that looked like something out of Disneyworld. If all went according to plan, one January 2020 estimate projected, parts of the rail line would be operating by 2028.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook's employees went home. Traffic died out, and the future of offices themselves became uncertain. Before long, Facebook abandoned its plans for the railroad. 'I was heartbroken,' Mr. Slocum said. 'I understood some of the business reasons, but heartbroken nonetheless.'
That Facebook would see a bureaucratic, multidecade transit project through to completion, or even construction, was always a long shot. Even before Facebook became Meta in 2021 and started downsizing late last year, this was a company best known for moving fast and breaking things, not moving slowly and building them.
Interviews with more than a dozen people who worked on the project both inside and outside Facebook, as well as hundreds of pages of public records, suggest that the project was coming undone long before Covid-19 hit, buckling under a combination of political dysfunction in the region and Facebook's own waning patience. 'The pandemic had to be the icing on the cake,' said Anthony Harrison, Facebook's former director of corporate media relations, who handled press outreach for the project. 'Or the nail in the coffin.'
But the story of how Facebook nearly catalyzed one of California's most transformative infrastructure projects in a generation is a case study in how fast-growing tech giants have sought to radically shape the communities where they're based and how local governments, starved for resources, have hungrily accepted the help. The project's unraveling is also a cautionary tale showing just how tenuous the ties between corporations and cities have always been and how those ties are being strained even further by the industry's falling fortunes and a global catastrophe that has rewritten the rules of work.
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'Masterpiece of masonry'
The Dumbarton Rail Bridge was the first to traverse the San Francisco Bay, and even in 1910, as a stunned crowd gathered to celebrate the inaugural passenger train crossing over the bridge and into Newark, traffic was top of mind. One article in the San Francisco Call at the time praised the bridge as 'a monument to the skill of the engineer and mechanic' and predicted that with the bridge completed, 'the congestion of traffic at Oakland will be a thing of the past.'
That didn't exactly pan out. The bridge's owner, Southern Pacific, decided to use it mostly for transporting freight, not people, and by the early 1980s, even that service had ground to a halt. The rail bridge fell into disuse, with cars, instead, pouring over the automotive bridge that opened parallel to it in 1927.
About a decade later, San Mateo County's local transit authority, SamTrans, acquired the rights to the rail bridge in hopes of restoring commuter service on it. But SamTrans would never get a chance, because on Jan. 3, 1998, much of it went up in flames in a three-day fire that left the bridge's charred remains sitting idle for decades.
Today, the bridge looks less like a 'masterpiece of masonry,' as it was described in 1910, and more like a child's forgotten K'Nex creation. Over the years, various government entities have studied the possibility of restoring the Dumbarton Rail Corridor and have even raised funding for it through tax measures, only to have that money diverted to other, higher priority projects.
But there are those in the community who never gave up on the Dumbarton Rail's promise, including the former chairman of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce transportation committee, Jim Bigelow, who viewed the corridor as a crucial link between Northern California's existing transit systems, including Caltrain, BART, and Amtrak. In 2015, Mr. Bigelow approached Facebook's head of real estate, John Tenanes, about his vision for reviving the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. 'I said businesses have to get involved.
At the time, life was good at Facebook. It was hiring like crazy and blasting past earnings expectations. Facebook was thinking big about its role in the world, both online and off, building drones and satellites to beam internet to unconnected parts of the planet.
It was also dramatically reshaping Menlo Park, spinning up fabulous new buildings out of thin air, including MPK20, a 433,000-square-foot mammoth with a nine-acre green roof that opened in 2015, and MPK21, its even bigger next-door neighbor, which opened three years later. Both buildings sit just across the road from the Dumbarton Rail's rusty, weed-covered tracks.
But all of this growth became a strain on local infrastructure and roadways, which, in turn, became a strain on employees, who were traveling increasingly long distances to get to work. If that was painful for the white-collar workers riding Facebook's double-decker, Wi-Fi-equipped shuttles -- which transported 6,000 people daily along 80 routes by 2020 -- it was excruciating for the people who often traveled even longer distances to cook their food and scrub their toilets.
Facebook was just beginning to imagine ways to fix this problem. It was already mulling ideas like adding a bike and pedestrian trail to the Dumbarton corridor and even bringing light rail to an existing Caltrain line near Facebook's campus. The company was also in early discussions about investing in new express lanes on U.S. 101, the perpetually packed freeway that stretches from Los Angeles straight up the West Coast, passing by Facebook's doorstep on the way.
So when Mr. Bigelow approached Facebook about reactivating the Dumbarton Rail Corridor, it didn't sound crazy. As a pure real estate play, adding a transit route to its campus made a lot of sense for Facebook, but the potential societal impact was alluring, too. Cutting down on car travel had obvious climate benefits.
And Facebook leaders and others believed that the rail line might help address the staggering inequality in the region -- inequality that tech giants were increasingly being blamed for. 'We felt we had an obligation not just to be proper stewards of the community we manage online digitally,' said Elliot Schrage, Facebook's former vice president of communications and public policy, who was among the most senior internal proponents of the project. 'But we had some responsibility to be good stewards of the community where we had a physical presence.'
'It's really going to happen'
In early 2016, Facebook took a baby step, giving SamTrans $1.2 million to update its study on the Dumbarton Rail Corridor, which includes the bridge and the rights of way that extend in either direction off the bridge. To the Dumbarton Rail enthusiasts in the local government who had been trying to cobble together grant money for the project, it felt like striking gold.
'That was just so exciting,' said Union City mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci, whose city was viewed as a crucial juncture in the East Bay to connect commuters traveling from Oakland or the Central Valley. 'I was just so thrilled, figuring it's really going to happen,' she said.
The study included detailed cost and ridership estimates for several modes of transit and concluded that some combination of bus and rail would be the best option. It would also be the most expensive, costing an estimated $2.58 billion. But the study's authors teased that SamTrans 'may have access to contributions from private partners, including Facebook,' and called the opportunity to work with the private sector 'unprecedented.'
Mr. Salazar says that was never meant as any kind of promise that Facebook would fund a multibillion-dollar project. 'For us, it was like, well, can this actually kick-start the conversation to get some movement on this initiative?' he said.
But there was a shared sense among local leaders that they were on the precipice of a unique opportunity. Here was a Facebook-funded study, at least hinting at the possibility that there was more money where that came from.
After the study was published, Facebook told SamTrans it wanted to investigate the rail option further -- this time with its own staff, its own consultants and even more of its own money. 'When they came to us and said, 'We want to negotiate with you. We want to take this to the next level,' we had a lot of hope,' said April Chan, current chief executive of SamTrans. 'This was unheard of.'
In the summer of 2017, Facebook recruited Winsome Bowen, a Miami Beach transit executive, who moved across the country to steer the project and manage the crew of consultants who soon got to work on it. (Ms. Bowen declined to comment for this article.) A year later, Facebook and a public infrastructure investment partner called the Plenary Group started a joint venture named Cross Bay Transit Partners. Together, they entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with SamTrans to explore the rail project further and complete an environmental review.
By Facebook standards, the launch was subdued. While it received coverage in local papers, the national media mostly missed it. That was by design, said Mr. Harrison, who managed public relations for the rollout. 'The biggest thing was that we did not want Facebook to be front and center,' he said. 'We did not want this to be the Zucktrain.'
But behind the scenes, Facebook was very much in the driver's seat. Its leaders thought the company could do transportation differently, on tighter timelines and with less bureaucracy. 'There was a mind-set at Facebook that they could bend time to their will,' said John Barna, former executive director of the California Transportation Commission, who consulted with Facebook on the Dumbarton Rail project early on. 'If you told them these kinds of projects take a long time, they'd look at you and go: Our timeline is 18 months.'
Almost immediately, Facebook's ambitions collided with the reality that building transit systems in the United States is extraordinarily co