rail trail alternatives
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Why a New Transit Plan Supports Santa Cruz Commuter Train

Bus agency worries that regional transportation staffers are thinking too narrowly

The future of a recommendation to build a light rail line along Santa Cruz County’s rail corridor is uncertain.

A new report on the future of passenger transit in Santa Cruz County looks at the future of transportation options for the Santa Cruz’s coastal rail corridor in more detail than previous studies.

The Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line is a valuable infrastructure asset—as it lies within one mile of 92 parks, 42 schools and approximately half of the county’s residents, according to the new Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis and Rail Network Integration Study.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) purchased the corridor at the beginning of the previous decade. The commission first approved the purchase in 2010 and finalized it in 2012. Over the intervening years, it became the county’s most contested piece of real estate. The plan has always been to build a bike and pedestrian trail down the mostly abandoned rail line. RTC commissioners and staff have also wanted to introduce passenger rail transit alongside that proposed trail, a plan commonly known as the “rail trail.

The analysis gave a favorable rating to the possibility of rail passenger rail transit on the corridor—news that the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail and Trail celebrated on Facebook.

Ginger Dykaar, a senior transportation planner, helped spearhead the Alternatives Analysis and the Unified Corridor Study that preceded it. She encourages county residents to visit the RTC’s website and check out the public online open house for the project through Nov. 27.

“There’s a rare opportunity here to utilize this right of way as a dedicated transit facility,” she says. “We don’t have a dedicated transit facility in our community right now, and we’re working toward the bus on the shoulders on the highway, but having this [rail corridor] as a dedicated transit facility would really provide another service to people to travel through Santa Cruz County without being stuck in congestion. And it’ll provide an option for people of all ages and abilities to travel that that they may not have right now—people who don’t own a vehicle, people who are younger than the driving age, seniors.”

WHAT ABOUT BUS?

Activists from groups like Trail Now and Santa Cruz County Greenway have long raised concerns about the rail transit idea—such as cost, low projected ridership and the perceived narrowness of the corridor and various potential operational constraints. They argue that a new commuter train would squeeze out the proposed trail, which may be the most popular part of the plan.

But the concept of a trail-only corridor isn’t before the RTC at the moment. When the commission approved the corridor study in January 2019, it voted to pursue plans for some kind of transit on the corridor alongside the trail. That kicked off the new Alternatives Analysis to study what form of transit the RTC should introduce.

One of the frontrunners was passenger rail. But another was bus rapid transit, which would let county residents ride speedy buses up and down the corridor, unimpeded by traffic lights.

Trail-only and anti-train groups have also shown some openness to the bus rapid transit concept.

The RTC slowly narrowed down its options, cutting out a number of proposals, such as one for a podcar-type personal rapid transit system. The newly released Alternatives Analysis looks at four options: bus rapid transit, two types of rail transit and an “autonomous road train” that would run like a bus down the railroad tracks.

The good news for bus rapid transit is that it has the lowest projected cost and one of the highest projected ridership numbers out of any of the options studied. But it still didn’t end up the preferred option.

The report, which is in draft form, lists commuter rail transit and light rail transit as the top two preferred options. In total, each of those two options showed a higher number of benefits and fewer drawbacks, compared with bus rapid transit.

For instance, the report’s projections indicate that the two rail transit options have faster, more reliable travel times, and they would have fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The bus concept has garnered significant interest, though.

It was the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District that pushed the RTC to begin an Alternatives Analysis in the first place. Metro CEO Alex Clifford warned two years ago that introducing passenger rail service along the mostly rail corridor could be a drain on Metro’s resources, including its funding. Among his concerns, Clifford worried that a new train would basically force the bus agency to reorient all its routes—cutting back on existing routes to instead start shuttling riders to and from the rail line instead, all while competing with the new train for valuable transportation dollars.

John Urgo, Metro’s planning and development director, says his colleagues still share some of those concerns. Although Metro enjoyed collaborating with RTC staff on the report, he feels that the report’s architects at the RTC looked at the major issues more narrowly than they otherwise could have. He worries the report, which is still in draft form, may be asking the wrong questions. He suggests that RTC staff may have been too busy studying what’s best for the corridor itself, when it could have looked at the bigger questions, like what’s best for the future of transportation in Santa Cruz County as a whole.

“We as a region have limited transportation dollars to work with,” he says. “And we should always be asking, ‘What is the best investment for those dollars, whether it’s on the rail corridor or not?”

TALL ORDER

The report also considers it a plus that new rail stations would support transit-oriented development, i.e. greater housing density near train stops.

To many policy makers, allowing for taller apartment buildings near transit stops is a no-brainer. Increased density is one way of meeting two goals at once—building more affordable housing and also making new growth more sustainable. However, many of the neighborhoods near the rail line are currently in single-family residential zoning. That means no one would be allowed to build other types of buildings there without either some type of rezoning effort at the local level or zoning reform at the state level. 

Even in the midst of the state’s housing shortage, zoning changes of all shapes and sizes can be a political hot potato in Santa Cruz County.

Andy Schiffrin, an RTC alternate serving on behalf of county Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, chaired an ad-hoc committee to help steer the Alternatives Analysis process. He doesn’t want to share too many of his feelings about the report before the public weighs in, but he’s generally supported studies of passenger rail feasibility.

At the same time, Schiffrin has shown misgivings about increasing density on transit corridors, due to quality-of-life concerns. As a Santa Cruz planning commissioner, he pushed the city to reverse course on its previous plans that could have allowed for taller buildings along some of the city’s busiest bus routes. Still, he says there are plenty of unknowns when it comes to future transportation and land-use decisions in the county.

“I’m always a little nervous about what the future holds. The preferred alternative doesn’t finalize anything,” Schiffrin says. “It’s a next step. Do we want to move in this direction? And there will be next steps in terms of developing a business plan and studying financing. There are all sorts of issues that need to be resolved.”

TRAILER PACKAGE

Bud Colligan, a founder of the anti-train group Greenway, sent a list of 14 questions about the Alternatives Analysis to RTC Executive Director Guy Preston—mostly about details he believes were left out. Colligan says he’s watched as the concerns he raised about the rail trail played out in real time.

He notes that cost estimates for the rail trail have been going up, and the rail line’s freight operator, Progressive Rail, has shown interest in pulling out of their controversial agreement with the RTC—a 2018 agreement that Greenway criticized at the time. RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz says the RTC is working to address the company’s concerns. 

Colligan—a venture capitalist who was involved in the early days of Apple—says government agencies lack the accountability that he’s used to seeing in the business world. “Steve Jobs would come in and fire this whole commission and start from scratch,” he says. 

Colligan is fresh off a campaign victory. His chosen candidate Manu Koenig, Greenway’s former executive director, unseated Supervisor John Leopold, an RTC commissioner, in this fall’s election. He says he and his supporters may look to run more candidates in the future.

At this point, RTC staff is focused on the Alternatives Analysis. Munz says they would like to get as much feedback as possible.

“We want to get as input as we can on these draft results before we take this to our commission,” she says. “That online open house is open until Nov. 27. People can go at any time, at their leisure and look around and provide input.”

There will be an online chat session about the Alternatives Analysis Wednesday, Nov. 18, from 6-7:30pm. For the information on the Alternatives Analysis and how to offer feedback, visit sccrtc.org/transitcorridoraa. 

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Dan Dion

    November 21, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Our rail corridor should be used for mass transit. We cannot afford to rely on highway 1 as our only north south transportation route. We cannot afford to cut off our communities from our state and national rail systems. We cannot afford to spend stressful hours stuck in commute traffic. We cannot afford to turn our rail corridor over to the special interest developers funding Manu, Trail Now and Greenway. Part of Steve Jobs’ brilliance was his ability to make bold strategic investments in the future unbound by the naysayers. His unique ability is the reason Apple created the iPhone, iPad, Watch, fantastic workspaces and retail stores. Rail is the best solution economically, environmentally and provides more equal access to transit. Think different Santa Cruz.

  2. Eric James Pederson

    November 20, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    A passenger railway through the middle of densely populated and highly coveted Santa Cruz environs will destroy Santa Cruz. Sure, a modern railway works great, like in Paris, London, New York or Barcelona. Can you think of what the railways have in common? They are all below ground so that the running of the trains does not wreck the city.

    If you want to build a subway section through Santa Cruz, that’s great; but no one is talking about that, are they?

    Instead let’s run trains right through the middle of our bustling paradise and turn it into a dystopian nightmare. Let’s make Santa Cruz as inviting for people who live there as a crowded day at the beach boardwalk. Why not also put in some heavy industry right at the beach where they can pump effluents directly into the sea? Maybe add a shipping terminal at Steamer Lane?

    It is hard for me to understand why people would work so hard to lose paradise. They will succeed, as they do eventually everywhere.

    The very thing, the attraction which makes Santa Cruz a magnet for traffic will be destroyed by running a train through it. Trains are nightmares; above ground trains more so.

    Go to Oakland and spend a day watching the trains go through Jack London Square. It’s not very hospitable. But unlike the folks there, we have a choice.

  3. Ted Lorek

    November 20, 2020 at 7:19 am

    Both our branch lines (Monterey and Santa Cruz) were built at the same time circa 1880. The difference is after a hundred years, Monterey had enough intelligence to repurpose thier dilapidated track into a community resource. We haven’t even completed one mile of trail! Train people want you to think that we are passinger service ready. In reality, we have 140 year old infrastructure with freight grade (5MPH) single track running over old timber trestles like the one in Capitola. The Capitola timber trestle is a historical landmark. That one + 20 others would have to be replaced with modern concrete and steel bridges. That’s killing our history for a very expensive transportation experiment. We should be celebrating our rail heritage with a world class Greenway over our existing infrastructure. Let’s celebrate it with plaques on pullouts along the path with historical photos and info showing users how folks got around in the horse and buggy era.

  4. Rail guy

    November 18, 2020 at 9:08 pm

    Anybody who has traveled in a modern society like europe or japan knows how incredibly convinient modern rail is. Comparing rail to bus service is laughable. Rail would do a lot towards fixing the Watsonville to Santa Cruz commute. Or do you all like sitting on highway 1?

  5. Jared Boggs

    November 18, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    I’m curious why the moderator allows commenters to attack other commenters? One makes claims (slander?) without evidence provided? Am I wrong in thinking this kind of thing should be filtered out and comments should be limited to the issues?

  6. Elijah Mowbray

    November 18, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    A big reason so many have fallen for the false promises of those pushing for a “Trail only” solution. If you eliminate rail, the continuous corridor is lost forever. The financial claims made 1 $1 a 2 million per mile for trail only – are pure fantasy.

  7. Michael James Parisi

    November 18, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    The endgame is pretty clear here: Lie, cheat or steal, do whatever it takes to keep the ROW. BUT WHY? It doesn’t make any logical sense. Dollars to commuters, there’s no comparable project anywhere in the USA. We are on the verge of multiple machine learning/AI transportation revolutions that WILL deal with keeping traffic moving reducing carbon output exponentially. On that note, the RTC knows the addition of thier proposed commuter train won’t affect highway traffic, one bit. Our best local environmentalists (including the distinguished Gary Griggs) see the rail trail as an environmental disaster and our best engineers with the most experience in this type of project say it’s pretty much impossible. So why??? Here’s the dirty secret: This is all about preserving future freight for fuel transportation, and they will say ANYTHING to buy time. When it all falls apart, the damage will be done. Don’t let it happen. Don’t let them greenwash this project into something that it is most definitely not. The train industry, particularly freight, has long been a major source of funding for climate change denial. (please google “train climate denial” for a great expose’ in The Atlantic).

  8. Ben Vernazza

    November 18, 2020 at 10:56 am

    Recently two former mayors of Watsonville wrote a letter about the Watsonville Parks and Recreation Commission decision to remove Washington’s bust from the city plaza. They were shocked that the commissioners made that decision despite 60% of the public polled did not want it removed.
    That rings a bell concerning the County Regional Transportation Commission which continues to plan for a train although there has been a petition signed by over 10,000 citizens that wanted a trail only. Public opinion continues to grow against the RTC, but a significant majority of RTC commissioners are for the train and they go about it as if they are The Chosen. Read what Willie Brown said last Sunday in his weekly newspaper commentary:
    “It’s clear that the Democratic Party has lost its way. We no longer generate much excitement outside the Sunday morning talk shows. We have to stop telling voters what they should do, and instead start listening to what voters want us to do. Democrats, and that includes me, have become the elites. And we will keep disappointing ourselves in elections unless we rethink what we are doing.” *
    That is the problem with a majority RTC Commissioners – most think of themselves as The Elites even though the public overwhelmingly wants a Sanctuary Bike & Hike Trail. They do not realize that they are Fiduciaries and have THE DUTY OF CARE, THE DUTY OF CAUTION, THE DUTY OF UTLIZING SKILLS FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE PUBLIC THEY SERVE.
    J. Ben Vernazza RTC
    RAIL to TRAIL Conservator
    Aptos CA

    * https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/williesworld/article/Joe-Biden-may-have-been-elected-but-he-has-few-15708554.php

  9. Jack Brown

    November 18, 2020 at 9:35 am

    Funny how Barry Scott makes himself out as a champion of the “Public Benefit” however all of his thinly veiled efforts deal around lobbying exclusively for a train. He spent his time in the last election smearing a candidate out of his district because it would be the first time we have had an opportunity for the public to challenge the train as a right idea. The RTC has done nothing but load up it’s studies and advsory panels with rail advocates. The study ruled out trail only solutions with bus service on other corridors and the advisory committee with only rail supporters. Meanwhile the current trail, which should only cost between $1-$2 million per mile if it were replacing the tracks is costing between $10-$45 million per mile with an average of $25 million to try to keep unused tracks in place. Add another $1.3 billion over 30 years to add a rail system that only serves 2% of the population and you have a real problem!

    Meanwhile the RTC gets mired in study after study while the public grows increasing frustrated with the direction it is heading. A recent poll on Nextdoor in mid-south county communities showed an overwhelming support (70% to 30%) for a trail-only solution on the old rail line with increased bus service (Bus on Shoulder/Bus Rapid Transit) for mass transit. Of course, this is not an option on the alternative analysis study.

    As John Leopold found out, the public is sick and tired of being ignored on this issue and we would like our tax money spent on more important issues plaguing the community. So we need to continue to vote out the rail stalwarts and let’s take the recommendation of the alternative analysis study, flush out the project plan and all expenses and what increased tax burden they will create.

    As Barry Scott says “let’s do the right thing for the entire county and future generations”. Let’s set it to a County-wide measure for everyone to vote on along with a flushed out project plan and expenses for railbanking the corridor, creating a wide and safe multi-modal trail and functional bus system that serves ALL of Santa Cruz, not just a couple of communities and see what wins.

    Enough of a loaded RTC with their rail agenda, Let’s do something for ALL of Santa Cruz County!

  10. Mark Mesiti-Miller

    November 18, 2020 at 5:25 am

    Because travel times between Watsonville and Santa Cruz would be 90 minutes for bus and only 45 minutes for rail, it’s easy to see why rail is preferred over bus!

  11. Jared Boggs

    November 18, 2020 at 4:31 am

    Good article, Jacob, thank you. But you left out something very important about bus service: it would only extend south to Capitola or thereabouts. South county would receive no service. This is a huge drawback and certainly factored into its ranking among the alternatives for mass transit.

  12. Barry Scott

    November 17, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this important news!
    With each study commissioned by the RTC, the case for rail transit on our already permitted rail line becomes stronger. Consistent with the rail trail already under construction, implementing rail transit can happen in years, not decades, and would involve far less additional study and planning than removing the line for some kind of paved busway that would end up diverting from the corridor.

    Connecting all the way to Watsonville and to the rail network at Pajaro, modern rail transit is the least costly and most equitable solution. With room for bikes and level boarding, and integrated with Metro routes to create a multi-modal network, the rail plan will bring us into world of sustainable alternatives to the automobile era.

    Public transit, like public libraries, public schools, and clean air and water, should be seen as necessary and vital public benefits worth the investment and worthy of support. I support the beautiful, wide, world class trail that our current and past commissioners have provided to us and rail transit is the right fit for that and for the future.

    Stay on track, and let’s do the right thing for the entire county and future generations.

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