The RTC’s feasibility study maps out seven scenarios for county-wide passenger rail, but is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Crammed between a house-sized pickup truck, a teen blasting Taylor Swift, and a produce truck spewing noxious fumes, driving Highway 1 can turn even the most level-headed commuter into a road-raging Hulk. But with Highway 1 as the county’s primary—and increasingly clogged—artery, what other choices might we have?
The county’s Regional Transportation Committee (RTC) wants to revive the rail line built more than 125 years ago between Watsonville and Santa Cruz, with the hope that it might get 6,800 people off the road and onto as many as 60 round-trip trains a day. It would be cheaper and more environmentally desirable than widening Highway 1, they say.
“Our county is constrained by the ocean and the mountains, so a lot of the development depends on the coastal shelf between those two terrain areas,” says RTC Senior Transportation Planner Karena Pushnik. “There’s congestion on Highway 1, and the purpose of the study is to get a better sense of ‘OK, we have this infrastructure, what better uses would be available on that corridor? And let’s initiate a community discussion about ridership, cost, where funds might be able to come from and how it might be operated.’”
However, critics fear that reviving rail could be way too expensive—with possible costs of at least $176 million to build and $14 million a year to run, according to a draft feasibility study unveiled on June 4 and available in full on the RTC website. The study looked at a range of possibilities for passenger and freight rail line routes, including costs, stations and types of trains, which include electric, diesel and streetcars. Stations could run from the Westside, near UCSC, to Pajaro outside Watsonville. The study also looks at shorter routes with lower costs.
The study details seven scenarios with varying stations and stops: the shortest going from the Westside to Capitola and the longest to Pajaro, along part of the 32-mile Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network.
Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants led the feasibility study and came back to the RTC with two “preferred alternative recommendations”—one going from Santa Cruz to Aptos with seven stations and seasonal weekend service, and the other running from Santa Cruz to Seacliff, with five stations and one seasonal station at the Boardwalk. Both include stations on Bay Street, downtown Santa Cruz, and 41st Avenue, with the goal of easy access to UCSC and Cabrillo College. Ridership estimates for these shorter rail lines are from 4,700-6,400 for the first, with 60 trains going both directions per weekday, and 1,400-2,200 weekday boardings for the second option, with 36 weekday trains. The upfront capital cost for a rail line from Santa Cruz to Aptos is $85 million and for a line to Seacliff it would be $31.5 million, according to the study.
But neither of these “preferred alternative recommendations” include Watsonville, something that has generated criticism from Watsonville City Councilmember Jimmy Dutra, who says it is “quite alarming, especially when you look at the services such as train or bus that would help out communities just like Watsonville. And especially since we have around one-third of the ridership.”
Pushnik says that the RTC recognizes the criticism, and that another round of environmental studies and engineering analysis needs to take place, as well as integrating community feedback to find their preferred alternative for a train route.
In the proposals, the longest rail line would go to Pajaro with stops on Bay Street, downtown Santa Cruz, and downtown Watsonville, with 10 stations along the way. The projected daily weekday boardings for that line are estimated to be 1,750-2,500, with upfront capital costs at $93 million, and 12 trains per day. Another proposed line ending in downtown Watsonville would have 13 stations and could have 5,000-6,800 weekday boardings. It would cost $176 million and have 60 trains per day.
It’s a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to widening Highway 1, says Pushnik, the cost of which would exceed $500 million.
“For the rail, we would be pursuing grants for the capital money, upgrades to the line, signals, bridges,” says Pushnik. “For operational money, we’d need a new local funding source, so we’d be looking at the increased sales tax being discussed in 2016 if that’s approved by voters.”
It’s unforeseen costs for upgrades and routine maintenance, which aren’t projected in the study, that make locals like Bud Colligan wary. Colligan is the founder of South Swell Ventures and Santa Cruz Works, investment firms geared toward bringing tech companies to Santa Cruz. He’s hired his own consultant and is working with Miles Reiter of Driscoll’s to look into all possibilities for regional transportation.
The bottom line, says Colligan, is that the RTC passenger rail plan is more expensive than it needs to be. It’s not going to cost between $77-$175 million as the feasibility report proposes, he says, and it’s unlikely it’ll be operational within a decade, as the feasibility report proposes. By his estimations, the whole project would cost closer to $500-600 million.
“The RTC does not own the right-of-way next to the trestles in Capitola and Aptos, so it’s going to have to negotiate with private property owners,” says Colligan. “Plus unprojected costs like fencing. There are multiple spots in the study where it says these costs are not included in projections.”
Accommodating the rail-trail proposition would also require moving the tracks in certain areas to ensure a pathway that’s at least 8 feet wide, he says. While some spots along the rail are 70 feet wide, others aren’t, and those are the areas where the RTC will have to negotiate right-of-way purchases.
In addition, Colligan points out, the plan itself says that bus transportation will likely be faster than rail and that many who don’t work directly along the corridor will have to use multiple forms of transit to get to their final destination.
Colligan wants to know who the rail will benefit: will contractors and service workers driving trucks full of equipment take a train from Watsonville instead of drive?
“If we had a safe, wide bike path that is well-lit where we use public policy to encourage people to bike, we could take some number of those people—is it 1,000, is it 2,000, 3,000? I don’t know—off of Highway 1,” says Colligan. “Could we have the same impact with dramatically lower cost and have a cleaner, less noisy, less disruptive and probably economically vital pathway?”
Pushnik counters that when voters passed Proposition 116 in 1990—which planted the seed for the proposed passenger rail—the state made $11 million available to Santa Cruz County for rail projects which “facilitate recreational, commuter, inter-city and inter-county travel.”
The state law stipulates what qualifies as rail projects—pedestrian and bicycle pathways are not included.
“In the mid-1990s, the RTC asked the California Transportation Commission whether the Proposition 116 funds could be used to purchase a portion of the rail line right of way to provide a bicycle and pedestrian path, and the CTC said no,” says Pushnik.
In some areas, making a trail instead of a rail might end up being more expensive, says Bruce Sawhill, Chairman of the Board for the Friends of the Santa Cruz Rail & Trail.
With all the future costs, maybe it would be cheaper to give the $11 million back to the state, proposes Colligan, and build a “multi-modal” pedestrian trail.
Sawhill disagrees. It has to do with what kind of public monies are available, he says. Replacing old infrastructure, like the Capitola trestle, says Sawhill, would bludgeon any trail budget in one fell swoop.
Money for a rail line, however—there’s more of that to go around, be believes.
“You have access to a lot of federal and state pots of money that would pay for rehabilitation and infrastructure which just having a trail wouldn’t necessarily give you,” says Sawhill.
“Trails are not yet considered as vital infrastructure in the same way that rail lines are.”
Plus, he says, a trail will still only get you so far and it’s unfair to assume that Watsonville commuters will want to ride the 20-something miles to work on their bikes.
“We could end up with something really wonderful, as long as it’s done right,” says Sawhill. “A lot of people when they think ‘train’ think Amtrak, and that’s definitely not appropriate for here. We’d need something between a streetcar and a light-rail vehicle. It would weigh one-tenth an Amtrak train and use one-tenth the power. There are now vehicles quieter than cars on streets, the technology is there.”
One thing Colligan, Sawhill and Pushnik all agree on is that in its current form, the plan is still far from perfect.
“I think the challenge is for our community to think not in today’s perspective, but about the future,” says Pushnik. “What do we want to have available not only for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children?”
Community members can contact the RTC with feedback about the rail and take their survey until July 31: sccrtc.org/rail. PHOTO: Santa Cruz County’s Regional Transit Committee is considering electric, diesel, and streetcars for future passenger rail—and possibly moving away from the larger, louder models like Santa Cruz’s current EMD F9 (left), belonging to Iowa Pacific, and full-dome converted sleeper car (right). HOWARD COHEN