Now that a feasibility study is out on the rail trail, people are starting to ask: What would this iconic dream project look like without the rail?
That’s what local planning consultant Kate Roberts has been asking the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). It’s all part of a discussion she’s calling “railbanking”—meaning: let’s put plans for rail on hold, or in the “bank” for now.
The RTC released its study outlining scenarios for rail service with varying stations and stops from Santa Cruz to Pajaro in May. Critics, like local tech investor Bud Colligan, say the antiquated technology will incur a laundry list of unforeseen costs.
Colligan hired Roberts to compile a “Passenger Rail vs.Transportation Corridor without Rail” report comparing the costs of a trail-only option to the RTC’s passenger rail with a bike trail alongside. Colligan and Roberts project that their option would cost $68 million, plus $10 million in annual operating and maintenance. The RTC estimates the rail trail would cost $176 million in capital costs and $14 million annually. It’s an estimate Roberts says is low, because the RTC would have to purchase several pieces of land along the corridor, rebuild some old bridge trestles and construct parking lots at train stations, none of which the study has yet accounted for.
A trail-only option is not possible with the state funds the RTC used to buy the rail corridor in 2010, according to the RTC. That means the RTC would have to give back the money if it rips up the tracks and only puts in a bike path. RTC Deputy Director Luis Mendez says the group doesn’t even know whether or not it would be possible to do that, and they’re reluctant to dive into it after all the years they put into the purchase for passenger rail. “Most things in this world are possible,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time, effort and expense.”
Others say it’s too soon to think seriously about giving up on rail. Mayor Don Lane and County Supervisor John Leopold—both RTC board members—said as much in a joint editorial to the Santa Cruz Sentinel last month. Amelia Conlen, director of Bike Santa Cruz County, penned another that was even more supportive of rail.
“The trail will connect our county, providing a safe place to bike and walk and making riding a bike for daily trips a viable option for more county residents,” she wrote. “The trail is our top priority project and has tremendous community support, and we are thrilled to see it moving forward.”