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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
Exploring Options of Rail Corridor
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.
Retain the Rail
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.
This blog highlights a variety of local voices engaged with transportation issues in Santa Cruz County.