Barrow Emerson leaned forward nervously in his seat in the far corner of the Watsonville City Council chambers. As the four-hour-and-twenty-minute Nov. 15 Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) meeting stretched late into the night, Emerson sat tethered by his phone to one of the room’s few electrical outlets, awaiting the commission’s decision on whether to delay a major vote on Santa Cruz County’s transportation future.
The commission voted unanimously to hold that vote no sooner than mid-January, giving more time to the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit Department and other interested groups to respond to recommendations in the RTC’s Unified Corridor Study (UCS). Otherwise, a decision on the UCS could have happened in early December.
After Thursday’s vote, Emerson—planning and development director for the Metro bus agency—leaned back in his seat, looking suddenly at ease. When asked by GT if he felt relieved, Emerson downplayed the moment, saying that he didn’t want to “apply an emotion to it.”
“More time will allow people involved in this to share information,” he added diplomatically, as commissioners and activists filed out of the council chambers.
A staff report prepared by Emerson laid out concerns about the 230-page UCS, which examines the best way to improve north-south travel times along three major corridors—Highway 1, the dormant coastal rail corridor, and the 19-mile stretch of surface streets from Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz to Freedom Drive in Watsonville.
On Thursday, RTC staff spoke to the commission about their preferred scenario, which they had released a few days earlier. Staff suggested a combination of rail corridor changes, highway improvements and upgrades to the Soquel/Freedom corridor. The bulk of cash in the plan, some $635 million, would go toward the rail corridor, where the RTC would introduce passenger service alongside a long-planned bike path.
Metro’s own report indicated that the RTC’s chosen scenario would divert funds away from buses in the future, and also suggested that the commission should seriously consider bus rapid transit, both along Soquel and Freedom or up and down the rail corridor, where buses could serve as a possible alternative to rail.
At the board’s direction, Metro staffers are drafting a letter to the RTC that will make a few suggestions. One of them is that the RTC should compare train transit on the corridor side by side with bus rapid transit. Metro CEO Alex Clifford says that the comparison should be broken into four categories: projected ridership, capital costs, operating costs, and funding plans. If the RTC has no intention of taking bus money to cover the costs of the train, Clifford says that the commission and its staff should outline what their plan is for paying for the train.
And if the RTC would like to divert funding, he says the RTC needs to own that and be transparent before any vote on the UCS.
“You don’t choose until you go through thorough analysis,” Clifford told GT after the meetings.
In a way, the preferred scenario is more of a best-case scenario.
The corridor study outlines a long list of transportation improvements, to the tune of $948 million. Most of that funding hasn’t been secured. The highest-profile, and most expensive issue in the UCS process has been what to do with the coastal rail corridor.
Activists from the groups Trail Now and Santa Cruz County Greenway have long questioned whether a commuter train would move enough people daily to offset its costs. They’ve called for the RTC to ditch its rail-with-trail plan in favor of a trail-only corridor.
Pro-train activists, on the other hand, have felt bolstered by favorable RTC estimates since the draft UCS came out last month. They cite the environmental benefits of a train, as well as the study’s cost estimates for the trail-only plan, which look relatively steep.
In a letter to the RTC, the Greenway board asked for clarifications, and criticized portions of the UCS, including its cost estimates. During public comment, Greenway cofounder Bud Colligan asked the commission not to rush into a vote next month on the future—in part because he argues that incoming RTC Director Guy Preston should have plenty of time to weigh in. Preston begins work at the RTC in two weeks.
Commissioner Patrick Mulhearn was thinking about Preston when he suggested the RTC officially delay its vote to Jan. 17, as it ultimately chose to do. Mulhearn, an alternate for county Supervisor Zach Friend, also wanted to give groups like Metro and the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments time to weigh in more formally.
Other items in the suggested UCS scenario include the extension of Highway 1 merge lanes, metering on on-ramps, buffered bike lanes, and intersection improvements. Under the plan, the RTC would consider adding carpool lanes on Highway 1 after the year 2035. That option would cost an extra $452 million.
Commissioner Andy Schiffrin, an alternate for Ryan Coonerty, pushed back on the notion that the RTC would ever divert money away from Metro. He noted that Metro already gets more than four-fifths of local Transportation Development Act money, and he argued that the RTC’s three Metro representatives are very active and effective on the commission.
“Metro always gets what it wants,” Schiffrin said.
The UCS process also presents a preview of the next battle over Highway 1. Some activists are getting ready to challenge the environmental impact report on the next installment of merge lanes on Highway 1.
Environmentalist Jack Nelson told the commission to weigh the impacts of induced travel demand and remember that new road capacity will, over time, essentially fill up into new congestion. “You spend the money, and then you’re back to square one on congestion,” said Nelson, urging the commission to prioritize commuter rail over cars.
Commissioner Randy Johnson, a proponent of highway improvements, sees things differently. He said that, no matter what, residents will make decisions about how to get to the store or work or soccer practice based on convenience—not based on high-minded ideas of what’s best for their community or the environment. Any alternative transportation projects aimed at changing commuter habits, Johnson argued, are like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.
Outgoing Watsonville Councilmember Nancy Bilicich asked the commission to remember the comprehensive Measure D sales tax measure that voters approved with a two-thirds vote in 2016.
The initiative meant many things to many people, but to Bilicich and some other South County residents the measure meant highway widening. She added that she would be in favor of a passenger train as well, especially if it were electric.
“I want it all,” Bilicich said. “The money—I don’t know where we’ll get the money, but we always figure it out.”