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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
This blog highlights a variety of local voices engaged with transportation issues in Santa Cruz County.