Passenger Rail Chosen to Connect Watsonville and Santa Cruz!

The movement to bring quality public transit to our county just achieved a major milestone:

Electric Passenger Rail is now the official Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for service along the rail corridor between Watsonville and Santa Cruz! At the February Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) meeting, the commissioners chose rail with a resounding 9 to 3 vote

What is the LPA and Why does it Matter?

A Locally Preferred Alternative is a formal designated choice of a transit mode, such as bus or rail, for a given project. Having an officially approved LPA will allow us to apply for state and federal grants to pay for the new transit system. 

It’s also important to know that different transit modes have different sources of funding (sometimes referred to as funding buckets). The State Rail Plan is California’s guide to reduce transportation GHG emissions by switching from highway expansion to rail expansion. The plan includes dramatically expanding rail funding in order to implement a robust regional rail network. In other words, there’s now a big funding bucket for rail in California. 

Because the RTC commissioners chose rail for our LPA, our rail line will continue to be included in the State Rail Plan and stay eligible to apply for rail funds. It appears the federal government is making the same shift towards increased rail funding under the Biden Administration. As an added bonus, once METRO becomes part of our new rail transportation system, it will also be eligible for funding from the rail bucket. 

Community and Agency Support for the Rail LPA

Throughout 2020 and early 2021, the RTC staff and consultants were engaged in the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA) study to determine which transit mode would be best for our rail corridor. The study used a triple bottom line analysis, considering Equity, Economy, and the Environment. The final study outcome recommended Electric Passenger Rail as the best alternative.

Community Outreach Efforts and Results

Public opinion was part of the TCAA study, and Friends of the Rail & Trail volunteers worked hard to encourage the public to participate. 

  • We asked people to submit comments, write emails, and phone commissioners. In the final count, about 80% of all public comments to the RTC expressed support for passenger rail. 
  • We asked people to participate in three RTC open-house events, including online surveys. In the last survey, 75% of the almost 1,000 participants affirmed the choice of electric passenger rail. 
  • Lastly, we helped members of the public access the multiple, sometimes-grueling remote RTC meetings, and many of our supporters offered public testimony. Speakers in support of rail outnumbered opponents at least 2 to 1 at every public hearing.

Government and Agency Input

Many government agencies sent letters of support for rail to the RTC, including the Caltrans Division of Rail and Mass Transportation, the California Coastal Commission, Santa Cruz City Council, Watsonville City Council, the Transportation Agency for Monterey County, the RTC Interagency Technical Advisory Committee, and the two RTC citizen advisory committees related to equity and accessibility: the Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Elderly & Disabled Transportation Advisory Committee. 

Nonprofit Organization Input

Many community organizations also sent letters of support for rail to the RTC, including the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Bike Santa Cruz County, Regeneración Pajaro Valley, the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, and Ecology Action.

Was the Choice for Rail Certain?

Despite all this community support, and the fact that the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis study recommended Electric Passenger Rail as the LPA, the outcome of the February vote was not a given. It was only after a lively debate that the RTC commissioners voted 9 to 3 to accept the study’s recommendation for rail.

Our thanks go to Chair Aurellio Gonzalez, Commissioners Greg Caput, Eduardo Montesino, Sandy Brown and Mike Rotkin, and to Commissioner alternates Donna Meyers, Virginia Johnson, Patrick Mulhearn, and Andy Schiffrin. They showed a commitment to the data-driven public process that selected rail as the best option for Santa Cruz County.

What Does this Mean? What is Next?

First, the choice of rail for the LPA means that construction on the Rail Trail can continue without delay!

On the transit front, the RTC staff will now prepare a Business Plan outlining the steps needed to implement a county-wide transit network. Passenger rail with synchronized METRO bus connections will be the foundation of this new transit system. The TCAA made it overwhelmingly clear that this rail-based system far outperforms any other alternative. Now that the RTC has officially recognized this fact, we can move on to refining the costs, the potential funding streams, and the construction schedules for all the parts of the network. 

The trail only / rail never crowd is not going away. Until the Rail Trail is finished and passenger rail is running, we will need your continued support. If you have not already done so, please follow us on social media, and endorse the Coast Connect vision.

Thank You!

This was a decision with multi-generational impacts on equity, the environment, and our quality of life. By choosing rail for the LPA, the RTC preserved a critical opportunity and made progress towards a future where Santa Cruz County becomes a better place for everyone who lives, works, and plays here. Rail and Trail supporters sent emails to the commission, attended the public meetings, and spoke out in favor of rail at these meetings. Your actions provided the support that the commissioners needed in order to vote for such a visionary project. They couldn’t have done it without you. Again and again, you really came through when it mattered. That is what friends do!

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