A segment of the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, which ran from Watsonville to Davenport.
A segment of the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, which ran from Watsonville to Davenport.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

DERAIL TRAIL: Biz plan for passenger train next to bike path falls short, putting project’s future in doubt

A tie vote Thursday means that Regional Transportation Commission staff — at least for now — won’t be directed to seek federal or state funding for electric passenger rail along the coastal corridor. But the issue is expected to resurface next month.

A vision of passenger trains running along Santa Cruz County’s coastal corridor was dealt a blow Thursday when the county’s Regional Transportation Commission declined to move forward with a business plan for the much-discussed Rail Trail project.

A motion to accept the business plan — a roadmap drafted by planners outlining funding sources and implementation plans to make electric passenger rail from Santa Cruz to Watsonville a reality — failed to pass in a tie vote, in part due to concerns over the project’s estimated costs.

“My real issue is the opportunity cost of pursuing rail,” said Patrick Mulhearn, a staff member for Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend, who serves as Friend’s RTC board designee. “It means that we’re not talking about other things that we could be implementing right now, with money that we already have.”

The failed vote means that RTC staff — at least for now — won’t be directed to seek federal and/or state funding to complete preliminary engineering and environmental reviews for the electric passenger rail along the corridor.

And though the issue is set to return before commissioners next month, at which point they could decide to vote differently, Thursday’s decision marked the most drastic public setback for the proposal in recent months, putting its future in doubt.

Proponents of the train and rail option said the tie-vote served as a “major alarm bell” for those concerned about climate change, air pollution, commuters stuck in traffic or anyone in need of more public transit options, while trail-only advocates saw it as validation of their vision.

The 6-6 tie vote comes after the RTC — a 12-member group of county supervisors, other local elected officials and members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metro bus service — in February approved a staff report, by a 9-3 vote, that pointed to electric rail as the “preferred local alternative” transit option for the corridor.

But the business plan, released in March by RTC staff, acknowledged that significant funding gaps remained for a project estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. According to a draft of the plan, sources for about half the construction funds, along with half of the operations and maintenance costs are “currently unidentified,” leaving $189 million in capital costs unaccounted for, as well as $125 million in operation and maintenance expenses for the next 25 years.

All told, passenger rail transit is estimated to cost between $465 million and $478 million, depending on the type of train, according to the plan.

For many on the commission, the report further underlined that the proposal was not feasible.

“Our community cannot afford this rail plan,” said First District Supervisor Manu Koenig, a longtime proponent of a trail-only option who made the issue part of his successful supervisorial campaign last year.

In the plan, RTC staff identified several existing funding sources for the project, though some are competitive — meaning county officials would have to apply for them — and suggested remaining gaps could be covered by sources that have yet to be created.

That would include new state or federal funding programs, or local measures such as a sales or fuel tax. Any tax increase related to the project would require voter approval.

And although proponents of a train and trail have highlighted the Biden administration’s renewed focus on improving rail service across the country, some on the commission pointed out that Biden’s recently unveiled infrastructure spending plan is still far from a done deal.

Mulhearn said that plan still has to make it through a “very divided” Congress.

“By no means is this ever, is this a fait accompli,” he said. And referring to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Mulhearn added: “The Biden-Buttigieg transportation gurus are going to find a way to pay for our rail infrastructure — that’s magical thinking.”

But to those in favor of accepting the business plan, it was too early to shut the door on a train along the corridor in the future.

“I don’t want to spend forever hoping we can get money in some way, I’m a realist and a pragmatist about these kinds of things,” RTC member Mike Rotkin, representing the Santa Cruz Metro bus service, told his colleagues. “But I think it’s premature to make a decision to end transit possibilities on this corridor.”

Commissioner Andy Schiffrin, the RTC designee for Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, agreed.

“We’re looking into the future without a crystal ball,” he said. “When you do that, it seems to me it makes sense to keep your options open.”

Commissioners in a subsequent vote Thursday continued the item to next month to figure out next steps for the coastal corridor. Ultimately, if commissioners decline to move forward with further study of passenger trains on the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, they might have to repay Caltrans $100,000.

Caltrans pitched in $100,000 for a roughly $1 million study under certain conditions, including that the county explore steps to implement more mass transit.

To longtime opponents to a train along the corridor Thursday’s vote marked a step in the right direction.

Bud Colligan, a board member of Greenway, a trail-only advocacy group, said in an email to Lookout Thursday that “sanity” prevailed and that “the only common sense and fundable path forward” is to build a network of pedestrian and bike paths, modernize the Metro bus service and “fix our streets and roads.”

“It’s about time the commissioners listened to the people,” he wrote. “Perhaps now we can find a plan to move forward together.”

But to advocates of a trail and train vision, the vote was cause for alarm.

“Today’s tie vote serves as a major alarm bell for anyone in our community who is concerned about climate change, air pollution, South County commuters stuck in traffic, or seniors and disabled riders in need of more public transit options,” Faina Segal, board chair of the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail, said in an emailed statement.

The commissioners “who voted to turn the RTC’s back on state and federal dollars to fund a passenger rail system have also turned their backs to our community’s need to address social equity, environmental sustainability and economic justice in transportation,” the statement continued.

She also wrote that it’s “sadly ironic” that the vote “to halt progress on local rail service” came a day after Biden called for “massive investment in public transit, including rail.”