We face a sobering reality. For those of us who came of age in the 20th century, the existential threat of climate change that we debated theoretically and at great length will be lived by the children being born today. What was projected to maybe happen 50-100 years in the future is already lapping at the heels of our children and grandchildren. They are feeling the heat, literally; and by the time those born today are age 30, the apocalyptic impacts of a feared 2-degree rise in average global temperature will likely be felt full force.
Though climate change is a global problem, local actions matter. To change globally, we must demonstrate moral authority and take action locally. A place to start for Santa Cruz County is to dramatically reduce GHG emissions from transportation, the largest single source. Santa Cruz County can lead. We have within our reach the opportunity to transform transportation quickly, easily and equitably and for all regardless of age, income, health and ability.
The first step is to implement modern efficient train service connecting Watsonville and Santa Cruz and Monterey and Salinas and Gilroy and beyond to all of California. As early as 2023, train service will connect Salinas to Gilroy running through Castroville and the Watsonville/Pajaro Junction, where the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line ties into the state rail network.
With regular, reliable, train service, communities and businesses can then implement incentives to encourage ridership, reduce car use, and cut expenses related to building and maintaining parking for cars. Buses and shuttles can meet trains at every station providing workers and customers’ door-to-door service to businesses, schools, healthcare facilities or parks. People who use wheelchairs or walkers or have strollers or bikes can enter and exit trains with ease. Families can save hundreds of dollars a month by needing fewer cars, perhaps only one instead of two. Trains are a no-hassle way to move across the county, and will greatly improve the quality of life for those who commute. Most importantly, train service will benefit everyone while dramatically reducing our GHG emissions that are causing global warming.
Rail service paired with the bike/pedestrian Rail Trail now under construction (the next segment opens this fall) will create multimodal, around-the-bay transit options for work, school or pleasure.
Think of the benefits if tourists at hotels and resorts along the rail corridor hopped on a train rather than in a car, or biked along the 32-mile Rail Trail adjacent to the tracks, to visit the Watsonville sloughs, the Boardwalk, Natural Bridges, Davenport or other popular spots.
Yet, some people are fighting train service in Santa Cruz County, using constantly shifting reasons trains won’t work. Foremost, they inflate overall cost numbers while ignoring the significantly higher cost of any other transit system they might propose, if any. The Unified Corridor Investment Study, completed in January 2019, found that adding rail transit will double public transit ridership across the county, helping get cars off crowded Highway 1 and off local streets. Moreover, according to the National Transit Database, commuter rail operating costs are about half the operating cost of buses per passenger mile saving us more money over time.
Modern passenger rail is quiet, clean and comfortable and can be implemented quickly. California, recognizing the critical need for a more sustainable and equitable public transit system, has committed to the State Rail Plan that includes funding for our regional rail. For example, 96% of the funding for Monterey County’s Kick Starter passenger rail service starting as early as 2023 came from the State and only 4% came from the County.
Change happens when people have real options. Passenger rail transit is faster, greener and more equitable. Everyone can use it. Let’s make Santa Cruz County a model for improved public transportation, cutting reliance on cars and dramatically reducing GHG emissions for our children and our grandchildren.
While we are in the grips of a worldwide pandemic and currently distracted by political and economic chaos, global warming silently continues to threaten all life on this planet. According to NASA,19 of the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred since the year 2000. Scientists recently reported Canada’s last intact ice shelf has collapsed where temperatures from May to early August have been 9 degrees warmer than the 1980 to 2010 average. Right here in California, 2017 was one of the worst fire seasons in history only to be followed in 2018 by another devastating fire season, which included the Camp Fire, the most deadly fire in state history that destroyed the town of Paradise. Global warming is directly harming the physical and mental health of local farm workers, who as a group are central among residents least able to escape the heat and smoke.
In the midst of all this, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is about to make a critical environmental decision: whether to use the rail corridor for passenger rail transit or for buses. This once-in-a-lifetime transportation decision is an environmental decision because transportation accounts for about half of all global warming carbon emissions in our region. The RTC’s 2019 Unified Corridors Investment Study (UCS) shows that compared to buses, trains on the corridor will save 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide every day. Removing that much carbon pollution is the equivalent of planting 61,000 one-inch diameter trees—a veritable forest of carbon cleaners—every single year, year after year.
The UCS also predicted putting trains on the rail corridor would double the use of public transit from its current 5 million to 10 million annual users. That is a lot fewer car trips, and fewer car trips will make for safer, less congested roads for everyone.
Using cost data from the UCS, it is also plain to see passenger rail transit is a much better investment of taxpayer money. The cost to upgrade the rail corridor for rail service is about $12 million per mile, but to tear up the tracks and pave the corridor for buses would be about $29 million per mile, more than double the cost. Furthermore, bus service would cost twice as much to operate as commuter rail service per passenger mile, according to the National Transit Database compiled by the Federal Transit Administration.
Not only is passenger rail less expensive to build and operate in the rail corridor, passenger rail service paired with interconnected local buses would create a robust public transportation system allowing many two-car households to give up one of their cars. According to the UCS, going from a two-car household to a one-car household would save at least $500 per month and that would be a big help buying food and paying bills.
Consider that in 2018, CalTrans published the State Rail Plan (SRP) committing the state to fund railway expansion, not highway expansion. The SRP includes funding for Around-the-Bay regional rail transit connecting Santa Cruz to Monterey and to the larger state rail network. Our southerly neighbors, the Transit Agency of Monterey County, have embraced the SRP. Right now, they are upgrading their rail system to begin Salinas-to-Silicon-Valley commuter service in 2023.
Taking action sooner is essential to avoiding the heat. Rail service could be up and running in 10 years. Because switching to buses would require many extra years to settle easement issues and redo existing plans, bus service on the rail corridor would be delayed 20 years or more, leaving us farther behind in the fight to reverse global warming.
Let’s join our neighbors and use our rail corridor for rail service, not bus service. It’s time to tell the Regional Transportation Commission that we want to leave an enduring environmental legacy for the benefit of the next generations.
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 email@example.com. 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.
Walt Disney doesn’t get enough credit for being an advocate for well-designed integrated public transportation systems. As a child, I loved getting to and traveling around Disneyland. Trams and a monorail whisked us from our parking space to the entrance where a train waited to take you to your desired destination; and don’t get me started on the walkability of Main Street. While 7-foot mice and princesses may not be the vision for local main streets, fast, integrated and pleasant public transportation likely is.
In January, the City of Santa Cruz hosted a pubic groundbreaking event to celebrate the start to construction of the first phase of the rail/trail in Santa Cruz County. Segment 7 between Natural Bridges and Bay Street will soon be built, providing dedicated walking and biking opportunities separated from auto-filled roadways. Additional segments are being planned to provide a continuous multiuse corridor along the coast from Davenport to Watsonville.
But what will we do with the rail portion of the corridor? There are a number of options that the County
Transportation Commission is currently investigating as part of its Alternatives Analysis process (sccrtc.org/projects). The website notes “transit alternatives will be compared to define a locally-preferred alternative that offers the greatest benefit to Santa Cruz County … Proposed future intercounty and interregional connections to Monterey, Gilroy, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond will be considered.”
Public input is encouraged at events on Tuesday and Wednesday with additional public events planned later in the year. Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail and Trail has an informative website (railandtrail.org) that helps answer many questions about the pros and cons of rail.
While fiscal challenges are always an important consideration, costs to develop transit along the corridor should be weighed against what we are already spending in dollars, time and inefficiency on our mobility. Here are some ideas to include in public discussion as we decide how to integrate the rail line into our transportation network.
Half of county residents live within one mile of the rail line. The alternatives analysis gives us an opportunity to embrace the corridor as a resource and time to discuss how best to integrate the rail line with our current system of private cars, buses, carpooling, bikes and e-bikes and ridesharing services.
Linking bus routes with rail line stops, through pulse scheduling (buses ready when the train arrives) and seamless ticketing between train and busses can reduce commute times and costs. Some are concerned about bikes sharing the corridor with trains but new quite electric trains passing every 15-30 minutes are likely more pleasant than current interactions between bikes and cars on local streets. Riding to and from work will be an option for many more people if long distances can be reduced aboard a quick train ride. Trains are bike-friendly, providing easy on and off support.
Active input by the public into the ongoing alternatives analysis will hopefully provide insight on how best to integrate transit along the rail corridor with the entire transportation network. As has been shown along the rail lines of the San Francisco Bay Area, once service and stops are established, urban infill development is often focused along these corridors, reducing residence reliance on cars and increasing the ridership of the rail line itself.
Committing to the viability of transit service now will allow city planning to address the housing shortage in ways that do not clog our streets and highways, but rather invest in a more integrated and efficient transportation system moving us throughout the county and someday all the way to Disneyland.
The vision that motivated the purchase of the Union Pacific Railroad’s right-of-way from Watsonville to Davenport embraced a multitude of wants: preserving commercial rail access, the property necessary for the Santa Cruz County leg of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, visitor-serving excursion trains and other recreational rail programs, rail transit services through areas of residential and employment concentration, connecting local residents to an expanding state rail network, and utility location including building a high-speed internet backbone.
In 2012, after more than a decade of applications, negotiations, analyses, and political angst, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) succeeded in acquiring this precious local asset. The next challenges are determining what exactly to do with this right-of-way, when to do those things, and how to pay for them. Retaining the rail bed and maintaining its infrastructure should be part of this strategy.
The “playbook” for what to do next with this right-of-way has been written and rewritten for at least a
decade. Providing rail service was part of the original planning documents in the 1990s, subsequent
studies and SCCRTC transportation strategies, and, finally, the contracts by which the right-of-way was purchased in 2012. At the center of all of these plans was the railroad.
To finalize plans to this right-of-way, the SCCRTC entered into agreements with the California
Transportation Commission (which funded the lion’s share of the purchase using voter approved
funds), with the Federal Surface Transportation Board (that governs and protects the country’s rail
system), with Iowa Pacific (the rail operator with whom the SCCRTC entered into a ten year contract to operate and maintain the rail line), and with the five jurisdictions in Santa Cruz that comprise the
SCCRTC. All of these agreements promise to maintain the railroad and to continue the use of the
corridor as a railroad.*
This fall the SCCRTC is expected to ask voters for a ½ cent sales tax to fund an array of transportation
projects – highways, streets and roads within each jurisdiction, pedestrian and bicycle paths and
improvements, and support for the paratransit system. Currently, a small slice of the proceeds from
that 30-year revenue measure have been earmarked for making best use of the rail elements of the right-of-way.
Of course, there continues to be debate about how these funds should be divided-up among the various categories and how they should be used, with every constituency interested in getting a bigger share of the pie. Some want more for the highway, some more for Metro services, some more for trails and pedestrian projects, etc. Because the measure requires a 2/3rds majority, all are included in a single measure that, according to a poll of likely voters, stands a very good chance of meeting enough of the various priorities of enough of the electorate to clear that very high electoral bar.
Resistance to funding rail maintenance, services, and development flows from a variety of personal
interests and judgments of some voters. In part, it comes from voters whose property borders the rail right-of-way and who would prefer it not be used by trains. In part, the resistance comes from those who would prefer that the money be spent on projects that they think are more likely to better serve their immediate needs – streets, roads, Metro, bike paths, etc. The resistance of others flows from skepticism that rail uses will optimize the productivity of transportation funds.
The 30 Year Horizon
When the Transportation Funding Task Force was studying needs and funding solutions to improve
transportation in Santa Cruz County – now a decade ago – the estimated cost of making the planned
improvements to add a continuous lane on Highway 1 was $600 million; the cost a decade later is
undoubtedly more. The plan would have added not only “auxiliary lanes” that connect ingress ramps
to egress ramps (these lanes which look like a third lane until you get to the exit), but also created a full third lane to be designated High Occupancy Vehicle or “HOV” during high traffic periods.
Unfortunately, the modest amounts of federal and state highway funding that were available a decade ago for such projects are now down to a trickle. More than ever before they require significant local investment both before and during a project to attract supplemental state/federal funding. In fact, the state transportation funds are so constrained that its administrators have not only canceled all promised local funding (STIP), for the next two years, but are also retracting funds already promised to our county.
Under current and foreseeable future funding, even if all of the proposed ½ cent sales tax proceeds of about $450million were dedicated to Highway 1 widening, our County could do little more than build auxiliary lanes to improve Highway 1 over the next thirty years – and to do that would still require state and/or federal road funds. (The proposed funding measure does allocate about 25% of total funding to completion of three auxiliary lanes.) Without a transformational change in state/national transportation funding there are no foreseeable resources sufficient to construct a third (HOV) lane in addition to the completion of the auxiliary lanes.
What will our transportation needs be in 30 years? AMBAG’s 20-year projections (to 2035) estimate the county population will increase 15% -- another 35,000 residents. Just as compelling are AMBAG’s 20-year job projections that estimate an increase of 20,917 jobs – 19% growth. This does not bode well for our already-impacted Highway 1.
Our “north-south” transportation problems are compounded by housing prices. Most of the housing
affordable to service workers – retailers, tourism, teachers, law enforcement, health-care staff, etc. – is in mid- and south-county. Much of the employment is in north-county. It also seems likely that the
number of in-commuters, especially from north Monterey County will continue to grow, further
straining Highway 1.
Is commute-rail an answer to this problem? The prudent response is, “We don’t know yet.” That is
certainly what the rail study recently completed for the SCCRTC suggested. In fact, this has been the
answer in virtually every study and plan regarding the rail line. But each of those studies has provided encouragement to hold on to the rail option.
Each of these studies has incrementally developed and focused our thinking about our economically viable rail options, especially as traffic conditions continue to worsen, land becomes more valuable, and travel time and predictability remains a high priority for individuals and businesses.
However, as the state has shifted funding away from capacity-increasing highway projects in favor of
transportation system preservation and transportation efficiencies (particularly including rail projects), the likelihood of improving transportation capacity in Santa Cruz County may well shift to rail.
What is next? We assume more market analysis matching demographic and economic needs with
possible rail opportunities; more detailed analysis of costs and operations economics; updated
information about emerging quiet and clean rail vehicle technologies; planning regarding linkage of the rail to related transportation systems such as Metro, bicycle and pedestrian travel, and automobiles; and, system requirements including infrastructure such as stations and parking. In short the details necessary for an effective business plan.
SCCRTC will also be monitoring the success of other smaller-population-area rail investments and the direction and pace of invention and improvement in rail and other “fixed-guideway” systems especially regarding smaller electric self-propelled vehicles rather than larger diesel engine driven systems.
So, while we don’t yet know what such a rail transit system would look like, we can certainly foresee the risks of abandoning our local rail opportunity. There are only two relatively direct, unimpeded transportation right-of-ways connecting Santa Cruz and Watsonville – Highway 1 and the rail line.
The cost of creating another right-of-way through eminent domain processes is both politically
unthinkable and economically beyond our means. Given increases in the cost of land, even the
relatively limited land acquisitions necessary to widen Highway 1 beyond auxiliary lane widths, may
already be beyond our financial reach.
Transportation demand will continue to increase as California’s coastal population continues to grow.
Perhaps, funding for significant expansion of Highway 1 will become available in the future. Perhaps
“personal rapid transit” systems will become feasible. Perhaps work patterns will shift to home-office
concentration reducing commute traffic. Perhaps other solutions will save us. Perhaps… and, perhaps not.
Those who would remove the rail are asking Santa Cruz County residents to go “all in” on a hand that
won’t be dealt to us for at least a decade. This makes no sense. History has shown us that once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Local examples include the railway over the hill connecting Santa Cruz to the Bay Area or the railway formerly in the Window to the Bay in Monterey.
To fail to take prudent steps to preserve existing rail assets and explore this transportation option
would be, simply, foolish. Our economic vitality and our quality of life depend upon efficient,
effective and reliable transportation. Rail is likely an important element of that system and, at a
minimum, an option we can’t risk abandoning today.
*If SCCRTC did an about-face on retaining the rail bed they would have to modify these agreements.
This would necessarily begin in an EIR and then expensive and likely-lengthy negotiations with no
guaranty of success.