Business

Facebook’s Bridge to Nowhere

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.

The Dumbarton Rail Bridge, which opened in 1910, crosses the San Francisco Bay.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

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.

More on California

  • Storms and Flooding: A weather event known as an “atmospheric river” pounded the state with rain and snow, causing flooding and landslides. Northern California bore the brunt.
  • U.C. Employee Strike: Academic employees at the University of California voted to return to work, ending a historically large strike that had disrupted research and classes for nearly six weeks.
  • Wildfires: California avoided a third year of catastrophic wildfires because of a combination of well-timed precipitation and favorable wind conditions — or “luck,” as experts put it.
  • San Francisco’s Empty Downtown: Tech workers are still at home. The $17 salad place is expanding into the suburbs. Today San Francisco has what is perhaps the most deserted major downtown in America.

‘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. Large companies. You need to put up some money,” Mr. Bigelow remembered.

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.

The MPK21 building was designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2018.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

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’‌‌

Juan Salazar, the current director of local policy and community engagement for Meta, shown in 2018, said the company’s leaders thought revitalizing the rail line could be a “win-win.”Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

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.”

Reality bites

Meta employees boarding a shuttle bus at the MPK20 building in the evening.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

Almost immediately, Facebook’s ambitions collided with the reality that building transit systems in the U‌nited States is extraordinarily complex. Across the Bay Area’s nine counties, there are 27 transit agencies, each with its own agenda.

To go forward, the Dumbarton Rail project would need money from the state, which would eventually require winning over a regional agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But that group included people from across the state who all had their own constituencies. “It got so political,” said Mr. Slocum, who sat on the commission as a representative of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. “This got swallowed up.”

Complicating matters, a small stretch of the still-intact corridor is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, which occasionally uses the rail to move freight and which risked throwing a wrench into the entire endeavor.

The public response to the project wasn’t any less messy. In 2019, SamTrans and Facebook’s Cross Bay Transit Partners held four public meetings in cities that would be most affected by the rail. Five hundred people showed up, often to support the plans but frequently to voice concerns about the prospect of a train cutting through their neighborhoods. Those concerns were particularly acute in communities of color, including Menlo Park’s neighbor East Palo Alto, which sits near the rail line. Locals there already blamed Facebook and its founder for housing evictions and overpolicing in the area. “There was the natural distrust of communities of color, because they have been historically screwed over by large organizations,” said Mr. Harrison, Facebook’s former director of corporate communications.

Kyra Brown, a teacher and lifelong East Palo Alto resident, attended several meetings and worried that development of the rail line would bring even more gridlock to the‌ area. Ms. Brown, who was an activist with the group Youth United for Community Action at the time, was skeptical that Facebook would follow through on its promises. But she also feared that a new mass transit line would only further gentrify her community. “People want to live close to where they work. Usually those people are people who are college-educated and have a certain level of income,” she said. “We absorb that.”

Shuttle buses at the entrance to Meta in Menlo Park. The buses are one of the ways employees travel increasingly long distances to get to work.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

Beyond these tensions, there was also frequent disagreement at these meetings about the right mode of transportation for the corridor. For Mr. Bigelow, standard ‌‌commuter rail was the only rational option, because it could enable existing networks like Caltrain to run trains on the corridor someday. Others thought better bus service was the most urgent need.

Cross Bay’s leaders were also flirting with the possibility of deploying autonomous vehicle pods on the corridor, which would be cheaper and help avoid a battle with Union Pacific but which were untested at that scale. Critics ridiculed one later presentation in particular in which Cross Bay suggested that eight-seater pods could carry more riders a day than a 204-seat commuter rail or 110-seat buses. “That is as questionable as it sounds,” said Adina Levin, advocacy director for Seamless Bay Area, a nonprofit that works for better regional transit.

Transit advocates were generally dubious of the public sector delegating so much control of the project to a private company, particularly a tech company. “The fundamental issue is this was a business whose main business was not public transportation or infrastructure,” Ms. Levin said. “Having them in that role was a risk.”

But Ms. Levin doesn’t fault Facebook for this. “They shouldn’t have been in this position,” she said.

Gradually, Mr. Salazar said Facebook was looking for a lot more leadership from the public sector, too. “It just didn’t seem like there was enough regional support,” he said.

The newer Dumbarton Bridge, seen in the background from the Dumbarton highway bridge, is used by more than 30,000 cars a day.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

When Covid-19 hit the United States in full force in March 2020, Facebook was one of the first companies to send ‌its workers home. In a live-streamed company town hall that May, Mark Zuckerberg declared his intention to make Facebook “the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.” The company announced that same week that it was “reassessing” its commitment to the Dumbarton Rail Corridor.

SamTrans leaders desperately ramped up political pressure on the company, asking California lawmakers, including Sen‌ator Dianne Feinstein and Rep‌resentatives Anna Eshoo, Jackie Speier, Eric Swalwell‌ and Ro Khanna to help persuade Facebook to change course. At one point, public records show, ‌Ms. Speier even took the request straight to Sheryl Sandberg, who was Meta’s chief operating officer.

But by the end of that summer, the most Facebook had agreed to was to spend a little extra time and money tying up loose ends before passing the work back to SamTrans. “I just had a hard time getting my head around it,” Mr. Slocum remembered. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to really benefit the region, and it’s dead.”

Facebook’s departure was a slow fade, but its last gasp came in May 2021, when Ms. Bowen, who had led the project since 2017, left the company. In a farewell email to Mr. Slocum and others that day, which was obtained by The Times through a public records request, she wrote that she thought Facebook “had modest awareness of the gargantuan task that was first envisioned.”

The email told the broad strokes of the story and ended on a melancholy but optimistic note. “We moved a rusted 25-year-old needle, re-energized the community, and awakened the region to possibility,” she wrote. “Admittedly, we remain stuck in the reality that on average, it takes 20+ years to build a significant bridge in the United States. We need to change that. And we will.”

A year and a half later, though, it seems unlikely that Facebook will be part of that change. In almost every way, including its name, Facebook, now Meta, is a far different company than it was in 2015. Where Facebook was expanding, Meta is retrenching, shedding products, disbanding entire teams and spending nearly $3 billion to shrink its office footprint. With this change, Meta is keeping some of its promises to the local community, including its plans for a new 59-acre mixed-use development in Menlo Park called Willow Village. But it seems clear that as the company slashes both jobs and leases, it’s concentrating less on building infrastructure in the physical world and more on luring users into its virtual one.

And yet, while Meta’s priorities may have shifted, the need in its own backyard has not abated. According to transportation commission data, on March 13, 2020, just before the world shut down, about 30,400 cars crossed the Dumbarton highway bridge, which runs alongside the ruined rail bridge. On Sept. 30, 2022, it was about 30,500.

Commutes remain brutal for employees who can’t work remotely, including Angelina Sanchez, a janitor at Meta, who told The New York Times through a translator in October that she commutes about 90 miles each way to and from Modesto, leaving home at 5 a.m. and not returning until 10:30 p.m. Ms. Sanchez, a mother of three, said she used to live in nearby East Palo Alto but has moved farther and farther away to find housing she can afford.

The Dumbarton Rail project wouldn’t have solved these problems on its own. But it might have helped. The question is: Whose job is it to take on that work?

The public sector, which has the mandate but lacks the resources, or the tech companies, which have intensified the problem but ultimately answer to investors?

The Dumbarton Rail Bridge no longer inspires the awe it did in 1910, when the San Francisco Call called it an example of the “impossible being made possible.”

It’s easy to miss the burned-out relic altogether while driving over the sleek toll bridge next to it. Set off in the distance, squatting over the San Francisco Bay with its shorebirds flocking overhead, the rail crossing sits low over the water, its central swing gate left permanently open to allow boats to pass through.

There’s a turnoff on the road where tourists on their way back from visiting Meta’s famous 1 Hacker Way sign can stop to take a closer look — or maybe to snap a selfie, never even knowing what they’re looking at.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button