This region that we call home has many wonderful qualities. In addition to the stunning environment, our coastal community includes thriving local businesses, strong educational institutions, varied cultural resources, and an active citizenry. It’s no wonder we take such pride in our communities.
That community pride has been on display during this difficult year. We have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial justice crisis, and the climate-change-powered wildfires with exceptional resilience and compassion.
But these challenges have made it clear that the time to invest in equity and clean energy alternatives is now. Creating car-free transportation options is one way to do that. We can do more than react to disasters. With courage and creativity, we can improve conditions for our diverse communities.
Coast Connect is the initiative to improve transportation equity and sustainability in our county. Developed by the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail, and endorsed by hundreds of individuals, businesses and community groups, Coast Connect is a vision for a transformed transportation system in our county, one that will provide an alternative to the expense and environmental damage of car dependence.
This vision begins with leveraging our under-utilized rail corridor into a multi-functional north-to-south transportation spine, including both a trail and a passenger rail service. The trail is under construction now and will connect more than half of the county’s population from Davenport to Watsonville. It will provide safe access to dozens of parks, schools and businesses.
Next to the trail, passenger rail service between Watsonville and Santa Cruz will connect our county, giving residents a clean, quiet, reliable alternative to Highway 1 traffic. Rail connections at Watsonville/Pajaro Junction will give us car-free access to destinations beyond our county. Synchronized local buses and shuttles will create smooth connections at the rail stops.
Finally, a network of safe streets, with complete sidewalks and bike lanes, will give bicyclists, scooters, pedestrians, and others a way to safely move between neighborhoods and connect to the rail corridor.
Slow Streets activist Greg Larson notes, “Safe streets will encourage more people to walk and bike to nearby destinations.”
Gina Cole, Executive Director of Bike Santa Cruz County, points out, “Bike lanes leading to and from passenger rail would allow people to commute safely by bike-rail-bike.”
This vision is already finding support in the local business community. John Caletti of Caletti Cycles says, “This is not just about building a direct, car-free cross town connection, but it’s a key piece in addressing the climate crisis, housing crisis, and social justice connectivity issues.”
A 40-minute rail ride from Watsonville to Santa Cruz will empower South County residents. Lifetime county resident Faina Segal recalls, ”Growing up in Watsonville, so many of the opportunities I needed were in North County. Unless you have a car and parent to drive you, those opportunities are not available. Rail service would change that.”
Watsonville City Council member, Aurelio Gonzales says, “When the Watsonville station is opened, we will become a transit hub for our region. The economic opportunities for our community are amazing.”
The Coast Connect vision seeks to preserve the natural beauty of our beloved region while proactively building the future we want. Let’s use the strength, resilience, imagination and courage that have been on display this year to take charge and plan a transportation system that improves economic access for all while preserving the natural beauty of our county.
You can take action to make this vision a reality. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) study shows that rail transit is best for our county. Please email them email@example.com. Tell them to follow the data and plan for a future that includes rail transit in Santa Cruz County.
And please join us in endorsing the Coast Connect vision at coastconnect.org.
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.
This blog highlights a variety of local voices engaged with transportation issues in Santa Cruz County.