When the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) on April 1 narrowly rejected a business plan that laid out how to pay for a countywide passenger rail system, it sidelined a project that could have benefitted thousands of South County residents who work in Santa Cruz.
That’s according to commission chair Aurelio Gonzalez, who voted in favor of the plan. The Watsonville City councilman says that passenger rail leading from Davenport to Watsonville would have also allowed visitors to stay in Watsonville hotels—and eat at restaurants there—and then take the train to attractions in North County such as the Boardwalk and the beaches.
“It would have had a real positive economic impact,” he said.
The commission voted 6-6 for the plan, a tie vote that meant it failed.
While Gonzalez says that train service would likely not have appreciably reduced Highway 1 traffic, he adds that it would have given many county residents a choice in how they move around the county.
“It would have been an option to be able to be a little more mobile,” he said.
A trail-only option, Gonzalez said, would offer a healthy, green travel resource for many county residents. But South County residents who face a daily, 15-mile commute, frequently in bumper-to-bumper traffic, could have greatly benefited from the passenger rail.
“A normal person wouldn’t want to ride a bike that early in the morning all the way to Santa Cruz to get to work,” he stated in an email.
Watsonville City Councilman Lowell Hurst, who serves as an alternate on the commission, says that the county should use the existing rails for a transit project, since they are already in place.
“A beautiful world-class trail and something light, electric and moves people on the rails sounds good to me,” he said. “I have hiked, rode a bike and ridden rail vehicles all over the world, so I think it’s feasible here too.”
Hurst says he was disappointed by the decision, but that he understands the reluctance of some residents to have a rail line running through their backyards.
Hurst also expressed concern about an $11 million grant from the California Transportation Commission with the condition it be used for public transportation.
“I just urge the public representatives to think about what the needs of our community will be in the future with a view of access, economic and social justice, where Watsonville doesn’t get left behind with any decision,” he said.
Hurst was referring to funding under Proposition 116, a 1990 law that authorized a $2 billion bond for passenger and commuter rail.
The RTC is still meeting its requirements under that law, which are to be responsible for initiating recreational rail service—but not necessarily to implement it—and to commit to continuing freight service, says RTC spokeswoman Shannon Munz.
Also unclear is what will happen with a $100,000 grant from California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, that was meant to fund the business plan. Now that the commission has rejected it, the RTC may have to pay that money back, says Executive Director Guy Preston.
The commissioners will meet in May to discuss that issue.
Plans for a rail line, estimated between $465 million and $478 million, deeply divided the county. Advocates envisioned a convenient, environmentally friendly transportation alternative, while opponents saw an unsightly, expensive untenable behemoth incompatible with Santa Cruz County that is unlikely to reduce traffic congestion.
The plan called for construction to commence around 2030, with rail service to begin five years later.
According to the plan, the project was short $189 million for construction costs and $125 million to run the rail system over the next two decades.
The report also lists numerous potential state and federal funding sources, but none of those are certain.
Preston says that the April 1 vote meant that RTC staff cannot seek funding for the project. He added that he was not surprised by the vote, given the polarizing nature of the issue.
“There is a lot of value to rail, but there is also a considerable expense and a lot of issues that the officials have to consider when making a decision about whether or not they want to proceed with a project of this magnitude,” Preston said.
Brian Peoples of Trail Now, which advocates for a bike and pedestrian path to replace the rail line, says the vote could signal the beginning of those efforts.
“We are hopeful RTC expedites the construction of an interim Coastal Trail (Stone Dust) from Watsonville to Santa Cruz Boardwalk by 2023, with the long term construction of the world-class Santa Cruz Coastal Trail (asphalt),” he stated in an email.
Preston says the rail line will likely stay where it is, since Santa Cruz County is still part of the national rail network.
“We still need to figure out where we’re going to go from here, but at this particular time we’re not going to be pursuing passenger rail on the rail line unless something changes,” he said. “The commissioners still have the ability to make whatever decision they so choose. But right now when we have six and six we would need one of the commissioners to change their minds.”