RTC Santa Cruz transportation vote
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Santa Cruz County’s Big Move on Transportation, Explained

The Regional Transportation Commission places its bet on the rail trail

County analyst Patrick Mulhearn (left) and Supervisor Bruce McPherson react to new information at a Jan. 17 Regional Transportation Commission meeting. PHOTO JULES HOLDSWORTH

After two years of waiting, county residents finally have a clearer sense of Santa Cruz County’s path forward on transportation.

On Thursday, Jan. 17, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) unanimously finalized its Unified Corridor Study (UCS). The RTC’s vote puts Santa Cruz County a step closer toward one day implementing passenger rail service—and maybe even building carpool lanes on the highway in the decades that follow.

GT is here to breakdown the significance of the study, the vote, what this all means and also what it doesn’t.

First of all, what is the UCS?

This two-year study from the RTC examined future transportation solutions for Santa Cruz County’s main corridors: Highway 1, Soquel Drive, Soquel Avenue, Freedom Drive, and the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. For years, the coastal rail line’s corridor has been mostly dormant, except for a few freight trains running on its southern portion around Watsonville.

Partially funded by the 2016 transportation sales tax Measure D, the UCS has earned attention mostly for its analysis of the rail corridor. The Friends of the Rail and Trail has been calling for a new bike and pedestrian trail down the corridor and a commuter train running alongside it. Not everyone shares that vision. Concerned about high projected costs and less-than-inspiring ridership estimates, there have been calls to abandon the railroad tracks in favor of either bus-rapid transit or a trail-only solution on the corridor—a position spearheaded by local anti-train groups like Santa Cruz County Greenway.

But there’s more to the UCS than that. In its final version, the chosen scenario does call for transit on the rail corridor and a trail alongside the tracks, but it also calls for new bike infrastructure and highway improvements—like on-ramp metering and new merge lanes, which would improve bus travel times.

Additionally, the UCS calls for controversial high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, or carpool lanes, at some point after the year 2035. It isn’t clear how seriously anyone is supposed to take this idea. In the report, it reads like little more than an afterthought—a compromise between people who say that carpool lanes are their number one priority and activists who hate expensive highway widening measures in all their forms.

This compromise is just barely concrete enough to give carpool lanes supporters something to look forward to, while still being far enough in the future for environmentalist opponents to hope that the RTC will simply keep kicking the can down the road until they either realize that they cannot figure out how to pay for construction or just forget about the idea altogether.

What does the decision mean for the county’s transportation future?

The UCS decision is non-binding, although it does send a signal about the RTC’s priorities, as well as where it will be looking for funding.

Perhaps the most concrete impact from the Unified Corridor Study vote is that the county will definitely keep the railroad tracks for at least another 10 years, although the rail line will be getting repairs. Last week, the RTC also voted to finalize its 10-year contract with Minnesota-based freight operator Progressive Rail, though some commissioners wanted more time to study their options. The vote to delay came down to the wire, with only five of 11 possible commissioners supporting it.

Because of the new contract, in a few years, there could be freight trains running from the Westside of Santa Cruz to Watsonville, where Progressive already began hauling trains over the summer. The RTC has three years to repair the remaining 24 miles of rail line, so Progressive can extend its service farther north. It also means that if for some reason the RTC decides that passenger rail isn’t going to work out, and that it prefers the notion of bus-rapid transit on the corridor, it has to wait until at least 2029, when the 10-year agreement expires, before ripping up the tracks.

There is a chance, however, that bus-rapid transit could co-exist with freight service. There’s talk of building railroad tracks that are partially paved over, so that buses would be able to drive up and down them, the same way cars do over the railroad tracks that run up Chestnut Street in downtown Santa Cruz.

We’ll have more information about various options soon. The final UCS calls for an alternatives analysis. This secondary study will do an in-depth, side-by-side comparison of specific options for the corridor, namely rail transit and bus-rapid transit, as well as possibly the more science fiction-sounding idea of personal rapid transit (pod cars, essentially). The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, the local bus agency, called for the alternatives analysis, partly as an effort to study how possible passenger train service might affect buses.

Greenway supporters say that such an analysis should have been in the UCS.

Who’s going to pay for everything?

RTC chair Ed Bottorff says the county would need to pass another tax measure if it’s going to pay for everything in its chosen UCS scenario.

The scenario will cost an estimated $950 million, most of which would be unfunded under current revenue streams. That’s on top of an estimated $35 million a year in annual maintenance, about a quarter of which would be unfunded under current revenue streams.

Not everyone was a fan of the expensive transportation options outlined in the UCS.

Patrick Mulhearn, an alternate on the commission for Zach Friend, says he preferred a more cost-effective scenario outlined in the plan that prioritized options like bus and intersection improvements, solutions that would have been easier to pay for. According to the UCS, the bus-on-shoulder plan should get commuters from Watsonville to Santa Cruz one minute faster than rail transit would. It could do so at a fraction of the cost.

Can we even rip up the tracks, in favor of bus-rapid transit or some other solution on the corridor?

Maybe.

Hypothetically, let’s say that in the future, the RTC decides commuter rail is too expensive and that it wants to throw in the towel on the idea. The RTC could file for abandonment of the corridor with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) and “railbank” the corridor, protecting the line for possible rail service at some point again in the future. According to RTC staff, however, no one’s sure what the STB will say, and it’s possible that this would trigger a process for landowners adjacent to line and seize portions of it. That decision would be left up to the courts. The federal government would be on the hook for the case, not the RTC or any local agency.

If the RTC decided not to do a train, would it owe anyone any money?

The most recent word on this suggests that, yes, the RTC would have to pay the state back $11 million in transportation funding if it opts not to build a commuter train on the corridor, although there have been some mixed messages on this topic.

A planning official for the state California Transportation Commission told GT last spring that the county might actually be able to keep the money if it pursued a trail-only solution along the corridor—especially if it preserved portions of the tracks for fright service. Even among most trail-only sympathizers, there’s support for preserving the tracks outside the Boardwalk that Roaring Camp Railroads uses, as well as three miles of freight rail track in South County.

But this past fall, CTC Executive Director Susan Bransen wrote a letter to RTC staff explaining that if the local agency decides not pursue passenger rail service, it had better pay back that $11 million.

In a county the size of ours, that amount of money is not chump change.

Greenway supporters would be quick to remind everyone, though, that $11 million comes out to about 1 percent of the projected cost of the RTC’s chosen path forward. And transportation projects, for what it’s worth, generally have a track record of running over budget.

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