Sometimes people ask why it’s important to work for passenger rail transit next to the Santa Cruz Rail Trail. The Coast Connect Vision includes building the Coastal Rail Trail; running clean quiet passenger-rail service on our community-owned rail line, expanding safe bike and pedestrian spaces on our local streets, and integrating first and last mile options from rail stops so we can leave our cars at home.
Why Does Electric Rail Transit Make Sense in Santa Cruz County?
About half the people in the county live within one mile of the Santa Cruz Branch Line railroad tracks. This high population density along our Coastal Rail Corridor between Watsonville and Santa Cruz means that rail transit can serve a large population of essential workers and students, who currently are forced to use our overburdened highway. The estimated time to travel by rail transit is approximately 40 minutes from Santa Cruz to Watsonville, even at rush hour. Rail transit will provide commuters with an alternative to driving, reducing neighborhood cut-through traffic and improving safety on our streets.
To learn more, see the 2016 presentation, “The Benefits and Challenges of Modern Transit on the County’s Rail Corridor.” Independant Transit Consultant Jeff Boothe and former FORT Chair Bruce Sawhill give a clear presentation of facts supporting why the SCCRail corridor is uniquely and ideally positioned for the combination of rail transit and a trail, specifically because of our density (not overall population) and concentration of businesses along the corridor.
Quality of Life:
Investing in both rail and trail is not only good for people, it’s also good for our local businesses and neighborhoods. People who live on and around transit lines work, shop, and spend a great deal of their disposable income at restaurants and businesses accessible by transit. A well-planned transportation system means streets and bicycle lanes leading to rail transit are safe and well-marked, and ensures bus transfers are timed to connect smoothly with rail stops. Rail transit also provides the most space for bikes and wheelchairs on board, giving people more freedom of mobility.
The growing awareness of the automobile’s role in environmental degradation and ever-worsening traffic has spurred many cities to rethink their planning and development to put more emphasis on public transportation. Many cities across America have been implementing light rail and transit and ensuring plans for new construction, including housing and retail, are built along these transit systems (called Transit Oriented Development).
The most recent study by the RTC indicated that adding electric rail will reduce GHG emissions by 1482 metric tons annually, the equivalent of planting 24,500 trees and growing them for 10 years every year, year after year. That’s a huge reduction in GHG emissions that we can achieve with just this one project! Since 60% of our county’s GHG emissions are transportation-related it’s really important that we implement transportation projects like light rail that will offer GHG reductions for the entire county.
More and more young people today are choosing to NOT drive or own a car. Increasingly, cities are becoming more bike and pedestrian friendly and integrating bikeways, walkways, and trails that connect walkers and cyclists to transit.
Creating a modern and efficient transportation system is a long-term vision and process. Combining both rail service and the Coastal Rail Trail was the community vision that led to our purchase of the Santa Cruz Branch rail line in 2012. Construction of the trail is underway; while establishing passenger rail service could come as soon as 10 years from now.
Biden’s proposed rail infrastructure package as well as California’s plan to connect rail across California will move us ahead more quickly. Planning now for the future is forward-thinking and responsible.
Professional Studies Show Rail and Trail Together Best Use of Rail Corridor
From the beginning, the award winning Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (MBSST) master plan was designed as a trail to work in coordination with passenger rail service. In 2016 the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission completed the Unified Corridor Study (UCS) as part of the requirements to apply for funds from the Senate Bill 1 Congested Corridors Program. The data-driven UCS studied all the possible options for the corridor and concluded that the best use was for the combination of both the trail and some kind of public transportation. Then in 2019 the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis & Rail Network Integration Study found that Electric Rail Transit was the best choice for the type of public transportation on the rail corridor.
The Facts about Electric Rail Options
Electric rail vehicles can now be powered by battery or hybrid hydrogen-electric battery, not requiring overhead wires or third rails. This can dramatically reduce the startup cost. They come in a wide variety of styles and sizes, including small, fast, light, and inexpensive streetcars that may be more appropriate in our community.
New electric rail vehicles are quiet, with noise levels similar to a single car. Quiet zones eliminate the need for horns at crossings. With technology rapidly evolving, there may even be more electric rail vehicle options available to us when we are ready to implement service. Check out the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis & Rail Network Integration Study to see some of the vehicle options available now.
How long will rail transit take to implement?
Realistically, any large scale project takes time, especially in Santa Cruz. For example, the very popular Chanticleer Park in Live Oak was designated to be a park in 1994, the land purchase was completed in 2005, the Master Plan for the park was approved in 2009, and after a year of construction in 2019, the grand opening of the park was held in January of 2020. That is a full 27 YEARS from initial planning to a fully sanctioned park, with significant efforts in grant writing and on site physical labor by local community groups such as Friends of Santa Cruz County Parks. The complete construction of the Park Master Plan is not yet fully realized as of August 2021, and this is for a project that no one opposed.
Voters in the State of California and Santa Cruz County began the planning of rail transit in the 1990s with California Proposition 116’s RAIL Transportation Bond Initiative. Many factors come into play with a project this big, but depending on the will of the voters to push the County Supervisors and the RTC to move the project forward, we could see service begin as soon as 10 years from now. To be competitive for state and federal funding, the RTC must keep moving forward with planning so the project can be shovel ready and compete well for grants.
Rail Transit around the Monterey Bay, in California, and in the USA
Many cities across America are now thinking and planning for light rail to meet the needs of the future.The current administration and the state of California recognizes the critical nature of climate change and are working to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by financing more light rail, commuter trains, and passenger trains across California and the United States.
Santa Cruz County needs to plan forward to include rail transit to meet the needs of our community members. Monterey is already working towards building a rail system that connects Watsonville with Salinas, Gilroy, and San Jose. Our rail transit service would allow us to travel to Monterey, the Bay Area, and beyond, without having to drive a car or sit in traffic.
Who Opposes Rail Public Transportation?
Greenway is a 501c4 dark money organization that advocates against the rail and trail project. See our blog post here for more information.