By Sally Arnold, Friends of the Rail & Trail
Clean, Quiet, Modern Rail Can Connect Community, Families
Amidst all the losses, inconveniences and parenting challenges inflicted by the pandemic, there have been some positive changes as well. Worldwide air pollution has reduced, more people are using bicycles, and as supplies in the stores are short, we’re learning how to be more efficient with what we have. We also have a window of opportunity now to create a Santa Cruz County that is safer and better connected for everyone who travels to school, work, and play here.
We have the opportunity to create a new system of car-free travel options for our community. The Rail Trail currently under construction is connecting neighborhoods between Watsonville and Davenport. Alongside the trail, we can have clean, quiet, modern rail service linking Watsonville with the City of Santa Cruz and to points beyond our county at Pajaro Station. At each rail stop, synchronized bus connections provide easy transfers to various county destinations. A network of safe streets with sidewalks and protected bike lanes provides safe passage for wheelchair users, skateboarders, cyclists and pedestrians of all ages. The combination of safe active transportation routes, rail service, and synchronized bus connections would provide our community with a modern, robust transportation system. This vision is called “Coast Connect.”
Many people are familiar with the Rail Trail. Half of Santa Cruz County’s population lives within one mile of the 32-mile route. Additionally, the Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Trail Network Master Plan includes 18 miles of spur trails connecting the Rail Trail with other destinations. The total length of this trail network will be about 50 miles. The entire Rail Trail is expected to be complete by 2030. Imagine what this will mean to families! We’ll have a safe, car-free way to get to the 92 parks and 44 schools that are within a mile of the Rail Trail.
What about transit? Good public transit improves access to opportunity and freedom of movement for everyone in the community, including children, teens, and pedestrians of all ages. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is committed to using our rail corridor for maximum community benefit. In addition to building the Rail Trail alongside the tracks, the RTC is studying what kind of public transit to run between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. So far, they’ve narrowed the choices to two bus and two rail options.
Because the bus options would require tearing up the tracks to build a road, they are very expensive and would be able to use less than half the existing corridor between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Buses would run mostly on surface streets, making them less reliable.
The truly exciting prospect before us is the possibility of choosing a lightweight electric passenger rail system. Electric rail is quiet, reducing neighborhood impact. New battery technology makes overhead wires unnecessary. And thanks to Monterey Bay Community Power, electrified trams, trollies, or trains would use green power. Each stop could be served by synchronized bus service, making transfers easy.
Can we afford this?
Implementing rail costs less than half of what it would cost to upgrade the corridor for buses, and is much less expensive than building freeway lanes. CalTrans is shifting their funding from highways to railways. The State Rail Plan has budgeted $144 billion for passenger rail, including “Around-the-Bay” regional rail transit connecting Santa Cruz to Monterey, Gilroy, Salinas and beyond.
We must start planning for rail now, to provide for the future. Before the pandemic, congestion and carbon emissions in the county were growing at a devastating pace. Even now, traffic is on the rise again. The need for improved north-south transportation is critical. South County residents can spend 90 minutes in traffic (one way!) commuting to their jobs in North County. The RTC study revealed that passenger rail would cut that time in half. A trip between Watsonville and Santa Cruz would take only 41 minutes on rail, compared to 63 minutes on buses. Rail transit would give people that most precious commodity: Time. Time with family, time to prepare a nutritious meal, to help with homework, to engage in civic life, to enjoy the outdoors.
Let’s work together to transform transportation in Santa Cruz County! The choices we make now will impact families far into the future. To learn more about this exciting vision, visit CoastConnect.org. If you want to tell the RTC why you support rail transit on our rail corridor, please email the Transit Corridor Alternative Analysis team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make your voice heard!
Sally Arnold is a retired Soquel School District teacher and board chair of Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail.