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.
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This blog highlights a variety of local voices engaged with transportation issues in Santa Cruz County.