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Split Regional Transportation Commission Vote Derails Rail Trail Plans

Commissioners also rejected moving forward on environmental review

Plans for a rail line have deeply divided Santa Cruz County. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

In a 6-6 vote, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) on Thursday rejected a business plan for the design, construction and operation of a passenger rail line along the 32-mile stretch from Davenport to Pajaro, which could mean, at least for now, that the project will not move forward.

The commission will meet again in May, during which members will discuss whether the RTC will have to pay back a $100,000 loan from Caltrans that helped pay for the business plan, says RTC spokeswoman Shannon Munz.

Plans for a rail line, estimated between $465 million and $478 million, have deeply divided the county. Advocates envision a convenient, environmentally friendly transportation alternative, while opponents see an unsightly, expensive, untenable behemoth incompatible with Santa Cruz County that is unlikely to reduce traffic congestion.

The commissioners also rejected a separate motion to move forward with a $17.1 million environmental review.

The split vote came after four hours of discussion by commissioners and the public, many of whom expressed concern about the portion of the project that is still unfunded.

The plan called for construction to commence around 2030, with rail service to begin five years later.

According to the plan, the project is short $189 million for construction costs and $125 million to run the rail system over the next two decades.

RTC Executive Director Guy Preston estimated that repairing the trestle running above Capitola would cost at least $20 million.

The report also lists numerous potential state and federal funding sources, but none of those are certain.

Commissioner Mike Rotkin said he wants to see more study about possible funding mechanisms before he approves a business plan.

Commissioner Manu Koenig, also a Santa Cruz County supervisor who made opposition to the rail line a key portion of his successful campaign to unseat incumbent John Leopold in November, said he was pleased with the results.

“The takeaway was that the commission decided to stop spending money on rail studies,” Koenig said.

Koenig favors a plan that would replace the tracks with a bike-pedestrian trail.

“We obviously don’t have all that money locally to fund it,” Koenig said. “Effectively, we’re not going to spend anymore money on the train until such time as there is a vote.”

Koenig added that the split vote is a signal that the commissioners are not likely to approve the passenger rail.

The 66-page business plan gave a 25-year outlook for the rail plan, including costs, which group had oversight and how much ridership was predicted once completed.

The commission in February voted to accept the Transit Corridor Analysis and Rail Network Integration Study, which gave an outline of how the train system might work.

Public comment was split among those who support a rail system and those who want a trail.

“I’m excited about this plan, and the opportunity it gives us to build something better for this community,” said Faina Segal.

Buzz Anderson said that the county should instead be putting money into the transportation systems already in place in Santa Cruz County. 

“We as a community should be investing in making our system work well rather than putting money into this,” he said.

Commissioner Jacques Bertrand called the project infeasible, due largely to the cost.

“It gets back to affordability,” he said. 

Commissioner Eduardo Montesino pointed out that nobody from South County made any public comment, and that a train system would benefit the people who live there and make the daily 15-mile commute north.

Commissioner Lowel Hurst agreed.

“We have a responsibility to be fiscally prudent and spend our money on projects that are feasible,” he said.

Updated April 6, 11am: This story was updated to clarify what the commission might consider in May, based on new information from the RTC spokeswoman.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Barry Scott

    April 2, 2021 at 9:04 am

    This business plan includes a lot of goodness, new lighter and more affordable technologies are described, and alternative funding plans like a public private partnership are, too.
    The estimates of between $465 million and $478 million are for earlier, larger systems than might be pursued, but this wasn’t communicated or understood by all of the Commissioners.

    TAMC (the Transportation Agency for Monterey County) and the Coastal Commission, Caltrans, Ecology Action, many others others support rail transit and approval of this business plan! Let’s remember that the rail line will work with Metro to create a network that will serve thousands more people than Metro alone and serve south county with greater equity while connecting to the regional and state network.

    To any commissioners who are considering a no vote because of concerns around cost ridership etc.:
    If we want to authentically confirm or dispel concerns around costs and funding, this business plan will provide the information needed to find out with certainly.

    I hope RTC staff will prepare as requested materials that will aid commissioners in understand the business plan’s costs, risks, and benefits in advance of the next meeting. I encourage Commissioners McPherson, Peterson, and alternate Mulhearn to follow the recommendation of expert staff, Caltrans, TAMC, et al., and vote Yes when this comes back for a vote.

    Equity demands using the entire corridor for public transit and trail. Let’s not deprive south county and future generations of their chance to have a high quality public transit network!

  2. Don Honda

    April 1, 2021 at 7:20 pm

    Here’s my letter to the SCCRTC:

    Dear Commissioners,

    The Business Plan makes it quite clear that new rail service on the Branch Line will be very expensive with little payoff in terms of low ridership estimates, longer estimated commute times (without including first/last mile connecting transportation), very little reduction of current traffic congestion, and dubious resources for about half the estimated expenses (which we all know will skyrocket if a new rail service scenario is approved).

    It is quite clear that RTC staff knows that about 50% of alternative funding would be available only if Santa Cruz County provides matching funds as in another sales tax, property tax, DMV fees, tolls, etc. It is also quite clear that RTC staff knows that this would be a hard sell hence their suggestion of a massive PR campaign and social media cheerleading. RTC staff knows that there is very little “free” money” for this project.

    Through all the past studies and meetings of the RTC, the motivation is apparent of just wanting to connect to a statewide, if not a nationwide, possible rail service despite professed goals of “equity”, “environment”, and “economy”. This is banking on many ifs, ands, or buts and very little to do with reality, even with a new federal administration. The RTC knows already that our Branch Line cannot accommodate a fantasy rail service by looking at less and less efficient models while ignoring the will of the people. The BRT has been completely ignored despite it having many of the pluses of a possible new rail service while being more flexible, cheaper to build, more efficient, proven technology, more runs, more routes, lower fares with higher ridership numbers, able to use alternate fuel sources, level boarding, and space for bike storage, and most importantly, can use current funds from Measure D thus needing no new projected funding sources.

    Please stop ignoring the will of the people. Please don’t try to circumvent that will by using a tax/fee referendum on new rail by seeking to lower 2/3s voter approval down to 55% or simple majority. Please stop wasting taxpayer dollars on chasing a desired fantasy. Please stop throwing good money after bad. Please stop pursuing a “sunk cost fallacy.”

    The will of the people of being against new rail service have been shown a few times through just one petition of 10,000 signatures and replacing a commission seat with a new supervisor. The contrived “surveys” and “studies” commissioned by the RTC and FORT are obviously biased with a pre-determined outcome, using a “push poll” technique. Even then the numbers and impact are still flaccid and not impressive in showing widespread support.

    The SCCRTC has failed its mission statement by obstructing road and Hwy 1 improvement, being disappointing in design and execution of current “trail” construction, failure to develop a working Rideshare Program.

    It’s not too late to gain support of the people by stopping this fantasy new rail project.

    Regards,
    Don Honda

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