Context for the Rail Corridor Project
Historical Context: Over 30 years ago California voters approved Proposition 116 funding to allow counties like Santa Cruz, without passenger rail service, to purchase freight lines for public transit. As freight traffic on the Santa Cruz to Watsonville Branch Line dwindled, various proposals for adapting our county-wide rail corridor into a more useful and beneficial asset for the community were developed and debated, with passenger-rail transit, leveraging the existing rail infrastructure, as an obvious choice.
State Transportation Context: The Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line is identified in the State Rail Plan as part of the Central Coast geographic service area between San Jose in the north and Santa Barbara/Goleta in the south, including the Union Pacific Coast Route and Santa Cruz/Monterey Branch Lines. The 2040 State Rail Plan vision supports establishment of a regional rail network connecting Central Coast communities to each other with the Santa Cruz/Monterey Branch Lines and connecting to the rail line at Gilroy to provide access to and from Northern and Southern California. The plan includes establishing a hub station at Pajaro/Watsonville that provides hourly connections to Santa Cruz on the line between Monterey and San Jose.
The Public Purchase
In 2012, with the help of $11 million in state transportation funds, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) purchased the rail right-of-way from Union Pacific Corporation for $14.2 million. The RTC plan detailed a vision for a rail and trail combination for the 32-mile corridor running along the coast, from Davenport through Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Capitola, Aptos/Seacliff, La Selva, and Watsonville, to Pajaro. As conceived this new transportation spine would run within a mile of 92 parks, 44 schools and half the county’s population.
The Rail with Trail Plan is Born
After a 2.5 year planning and public outreach process, the Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Trail Master Plan was adopted in 2013 and amended in February 2014. The Master Plan has been recognized as an Outstanding Planning Document by the American Planning Association, the Association of Environmental Professionals, American Trails, and the California State Parks’ Trails and Greenways Program.
Since then this Rail With Trail vision has been run through a labyrinth of public process to capture community input across a range of competitive transit proposals and test the viability, performance, and financial metrics. In 2016, the county asked voters to approve Measure D, a one-half cent sales tax increase, with 17% of the proceeds going toward the proposed Coastal Rail Trail and 8% going towards repair and maintenance of the railroad tracks. It passed with wide county support.
Studies and More Studies
The RTC staff presented the Final Unified Corridor Investment Study (UCIS) and Preferred Scenario in January 2019. The report provided information about existing conditions for transportation in Santa Cruz County, forecasts up to the year 2035, and made transportation planning recommendations based on a triple bottom line analysis of performance measures based on the environment, economics, and social equity. The study data, public comments, and the unanimous commissioners vote all reaffirmed the best use for the rail corridor would be a multimodal trail adjacent to a public transportation option.
In February 2021, the RTC, Metro, and partner agencies released the results of a two year detailed decision-making process, the Transit Corridor Alternative Analysis (TCAA). This study incorporated a performance-based approach with a triple bottom line framework of equity, environment, and economy. It evaluated a wide range of different transit options, including rail, bus, and PRT, among many others. The TCAA study resulted in a recommendation for electric passenger rail serving the corridor between Watsonville Station and Westside Santa Cruz as the preferred alternative.
The commissioners voted 9-3 to adopt the recommendation for electric rail technology and to proceed with developing a strategic business plan for rail transit, including a rough cash flow analysis of environmental clearance, right-of-way, design, construction, operations, and maintenance.
The Business Plan
At the April 2021 RTC meeting, the RTC staff presented the draft Business Plan for Electric Passenger Rail on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. This was the last component of the TCAA. It identified funding sources for about half of the roughly-estimated construction, operations, and maintenance costs for the passenger rail system, leaving $189 million in capital costs unaccounted for, as well as $125 million in operation and maintenance expenses for the next 25 years. In the plan, RTC staff identified several possible funding sources for these unaccounted costs, including competitive grants, new state or federal funding programs, or future voter approved local measures.
New Technology, Lower Costs
The TCAA process requirements meant that the cost estimates for rail vehicle types in the Business Plan came from previous studies that used older, heavier rail vehicles. However, the Business Plan also made it clear that new technologies for light, emission-free rail transit could reduce the cost of both infrastructure upgrades and passenger rail operation. This in turn would reduce the additional funding needs.
State and Federal Grants Available for Next Step
The staff recommended accepting the plan and proceeding with the Preliminary Design and Engineering stage to choose a vehicle and refine cost estimates. The staff proposal was to pay for this by using state and federal grants that have no local matching funds requirements. The Caltrans representative at the April meeting confirmed the availability of these grants and encouraged the commission to proceed. Six of the commissioners voted yes, and six voted no, citing cost concerns and unanswered questions. No action was taken.
What is Normal Funding for Public Projects? Why did Some Commissioners Vote No?
For a major public infrastructure project of this scale, that has a time horizon beyond 10 years, having unmet budgetary gaps is typical. In fact having 50% of the funding already identified for passenger rail is remarkable. Proceeding forward with the staff recommendation would answer the commissioners’ questions. In spite of this, 6 current RTC commissioners voted against adopting the draft Business Plan, leading to a failed vote and preventing this project from proceeding further. Why?
Since the previous vote was a tie, the Business Plan with come before the commission again at the May meeting.
Will Politics Trump the Process?
The plan to eventually add passenger rail to the public transportation system in Santa Cruz County has overwhelming support across the community, including the City Councils of Watsonville and Santa Cruz, the majority of environmental, transportation, and civic groups, local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, State agencies, and the Coastal Commission. Recent independent research shows average 74% public support across all districts and demographics. Meanwhile, opposition is voiced by a small minority with outsized political influence.
Thirty years of community efforts to provide safe and reliable alternatives to automobile use, enhance healthy active transportation, and reduce global warming emissions are at stake with this decision.
The 6 obstructionists on the commission have the responsibility to go on the record and explain why these funding gaps can not be overcome. They need to make public their competing priorities and tell the community why we should walk away from this opportunity. They should be accountable for their votes in light of the expense, time, and due diligence Santa Cruz County has invested in this process and in the purchase of the rail corridor.
We urge the commissioners who voted no to reconsider and to vote yes to accept the business plan and allow staff to apply for grants for the EIR and for preliminary design and engineering.