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Let’s Get Started Designing the Rail Service We Want to See!

Over the next four weeks, the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is taking public comment on the first draft of rail vehicles, alignments, and possible stops. This preliminary look has been simplified to the point of providing almost no detail at all, however, it’s at this point when we can have the biggest impact on the design principles we want to see in this project. To that end, we’ve spent the time reading best practices in rail service design so you wouldn’t have too.

The Ridership Recipe: Walkability + Travel Time + Frequency + Reliability. Designing for these four principles ensures a great experience and high ridership.
Knowing which design decisions will have the greatest impact in creating a rail system that has high ridership, customer satisfaction, and meets state and federal criteria for funding, has become an exact science. The data is in and experts agree prioritizing walkability, travel time, frequency, and reliability creates a system that’s used, loved, and fully funded. These principles might seem simple and obvious, but our review of the initial designs show that pedestrian safety and accessibility, including where the rail trail is located, is not being prioritized in the proposed alignments, that key requirements for federal funding have not been disclosed to the public, and only 11 stops are being proposed, with key neighborhoods in Live Oak, Watsonville, and in mid-County being skipped-over.

Do you care about qualifying for federal funding programs? About whether accessibility or speed is prioritized? About how many bikes will fit on the train? Or about which neighborhoods will have stops? Now is the time to let your voice be heard.


Everything you need to know to participate in this Public Comment Period

This month we have the opportunity to give our feedback on the initial proposals for rail vehicles, alignments, and stops.


Picking a Rail Vehicle

We noticed the RTC left out some key pros and cons of each vehicle type. Most importantly only some of these vehicle types qualify for the federal corridor ID program which prioritizes our project for federal and state funding.


Light Rail Vehicles: Lowest level boarding and quiet electric and hydrogen, but lower capacity for people and bikes and does not qualify for Corridor ID funding

Multiple Unit Vehicle: Level boarding available, accommodates more bikes/wheelchairs, quiet electric and hydrogen, qualifies for state & federal funding

Locomotive Hauled Train: clearly too large for our coastal rail, take a lot of energy, and are heavy, but do also qualify for state and federal funding
The FLIRT multi-unit vehicle is highly customizable and can be produced with low-level boarding, special bicycle cars, and of course, comes with quiet electric battery and hydrogen options.

Alignments and Constraints

When there are constraints or tight fits on the rail right-of-way we may have to make design choices that involve trade-offs. This section offers some examples of various constraints and some potential solutions.

 

Unfortunately, the examples provided in the Virtual Open House lack the details that we need to offer true feedback. However, we’ve reviewed these potential solutions against the industry best practices to see how each choice might affect our future service. Ideally, we would not make a decision without seeing the metrics behind each proposed solution so we can ensure each trade-off makes a significant improvement to future service. 


Here are some definitions to help you decide which potential solutions might be your top choice.


Pedestrian Protections

This is “code” for fencing. In the few places where the rail line currently runs on city streets, fencing could be added to allow the trains to go faster. This would allow a faster (and perhaps) more reliable travel time for the train, but may result in unsightly additions to those streets and may also affect the walkability of the area.


Limited Speeds

Limiting the speed of the train means there are fewer barriers that need to be placed between the trains and any other traffic, allowing for more open streets like we are used to. Slowing the train speeds down in these areas is unlikely to add more than a couple of minutes to the overall travel time, however should there be vehicle obstructions in these intersections, it could result in larger delays and unreliable service.


Create Transit Only Lanes

Although not mentioned by this report, a third solution would be to create transit only lanes on Walker Street in Watsonville and Beach Street in Santa Cruz. This would help reduce the risk of vehicle obstructions that could affect rail service, but may result in 30-60 second delays for private vehicle traffic.


Acquiring Right-of-Way (ROW)

Judging the impacts of any ROW acquisitions is impossible without knowing which parcels are possibly needed. Not enough information has been provided to form an educated recommendation.


Moving trail outside of the ROW

Judging the impacts of moving the trail outside of the ROW is impossible without knowing which areas are being considered. Again, not enough information has been provided to form an educated recommendation.


Narrowing the Trail

In areas like the right-of-way between 38th and Jade Street Park where any ROW acquisition will affect several homes and where there is no access benefit to moving the trail outside the ROW, having a narrower trail is the best choice. The federal rail with trail design guide indicates ROW’s with widths as small as 15 feet have fit both a rail and trail in various places in the United States. However, this should also be a case by case decision.


Create new alignment outside of ROW

A new alignment could allow the train to run straighter (i.e. faster) or to new destinations. It’s likely that a new alignment would require significant land acquisition and additional dollars. However the full impacts of creating a new ROW are almost impossible to judge without any details. Not enough information has been provided to form an educated recommendation.


Straighten Curves

This is being recommended to try and allow faster speeds. It’s likely to have smaller additional land acquisition required and may add additional cost to the project compared to leaving the line as it is today. A true analysis would need to be done to see if the additional speed allowed by straightening curves is worth the travel time savings gained.



 

Even though we will have to make these important trade-off decisions we are already starting ahead of the game because we have a rail line that runs next to our favorite neighborhoods that already meet federal density requirements and all our most visited destinations. By continuing to follow best practice guidelines for high ridership and satisfaction we can maximize the walkability and access to each station and still achieve reliable and frequent service with travel times that beat traffic on Highway 1.


As we give feedback on our most important expectations and objectives for rail service we will be able to refine the ridership models to ensure we are getting a system everyone will love and use. We hope we will see these full details in the next round of reviews for this project. 


Do you have more questions? Please make sure to ask the Regional Transportation Commission any additional clarifying questions you may have.


Rail Stops and Stations

The Virtual Open House includes 11 proposed stops for our rail service, including a special stop for Cabrillo college that includes a pedestrian bridge over HWY1 straight into campus.


Here are the 11 stops that were included:

The 11 stops suggested most recently by the RTC

We can imagine we might want 16 - 18 stops to include every neighborhood that meets the federal density requirements, some of these additional stops are shown in the graphic below.


What are your thoughts? Which stops will you use and what criteria will be important to deciding stops?

A potential rail station map and connections to other rail services.

Which stops will you use? Please include your stop wishlist in your feedback to the RTC.


There are many ways to participate:


  1. Write an email: zeprt@sccrtc.org

  2. Leave your comments on the Virtual Open House website: Available at http://www.zeprt.com from June 6 through July 18, 2024.

  3. Attend an in-person Open House TONIGHT! Monday, June 24, 2024 6:00 to 7:30 PM Civic PlazaCommunity Room 275 Main St., Watsonville TOMORROW! Tuesday, June 25, 2024 6:00 to 7:30 PM Live Oak Grange 1900 17th Ave., Santa Cruz


As you’re giving feedback, don’t forget to weigh in on these key questions:


  1. Do you think the trail should stay in the ROW from 38th to Jade Street Park?

  2. Do you feel like you need more information on constraints?

  3. Do you want to include walkability, accessibility and reliability in the design considerations for this project?

  4. Which stops do you want to see, and which will you use most?


We’re so excited that the design process has begun, thanks for being a part of the process with us.



P.S. Did we just spark your interest in transportation design? Here are some good resources to learn more.


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