The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line in Santa Cruz
The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs alongside a recently completed section of the trail portion of the Rail Trail corridor through Santa Cruz. Whether commuter trains will ever run next to the trail remains an open question.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Rail Trail to be discussed again Thursday. Here’s what might — or might not — happen

The controversial project is back on the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission agenda Thursday, and there could be fireworks — or crickets.

Santa Cruz County’s Regional Transportation Commission last month failed to approve a plan that would have moved forward a proposed coastal passenger rail line connecting Santa Cruz to Watsonville. But more discussion of the issue could bubble up during Thursday’s RTC meeting — even as no formal vote on the topic is scheduled and the project’s future remains in doubt.

Rail Trail, as the project is called, is inherently complicated and politically sensitive. Proponents of a train-and-trail vision say it would bring fast, safe and accessible travel to Santa Cruz County, and provide a major benefit to workers who live in the Pajaro Valley but work in North County.

Those advocating for a recreational trail only say that a train along the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor is too expensive and won’t be used by enough riders to be feasible. To them, the failed April 1 vote marks a welcome step in the right direction.

With that, a look at recent developments and what might be ahead.

What’s the proposed price tag for a train line?

The train-and-trail vision took a step forward in February when the 12-member RTC voted 9-3 to accept a staff report pointing to electric rail as the preferred future public transit option along the coastal corridor. But concerns over the project’s cost loomed even then.

The estimated costs for a train could range between $465 million and $478 million, with operation and maintenance expected to cost $25 million per year, according to a draft business plan released in March.

The plan drafted by transportation planners outlined potential funding sources and implementation plans to make electric passenger rail a reality, but it also acknowledged that significant funding gaps remain.

What happened at the April 1 meeting?

In a drastic public setback for train proponents, commissioners voted not to approve the business plan, putting the project at a standstill for the time being. The 6-6 tie vote meant that RTC staff, at least for now, wouldn’t be directed to seek funding for environmental reviews for the electric passenger rail along the corridor.

What is coming back before commissioners on Thursday?

The commission will hear a report from RTC staff on the status of one aspect of the project — and no re-vote to approve the business plan is on the agenda.

Caltrans, the state government transportation agency, had pitched in a $100,000 grant to pay for a study related to the Rail Trail project, but after the tie vote by the commission last month meant the business plan for a train wouldn’t be accepted, questions arose about whether the RTC would need to pay back the money.

RTC staff have since discussed the issue with Caltrans, which determined that the grant requirements had been met and the money wouldn’t need to be repaid.

So what could happen Thursday?

In advance of the meeting, both the Santa Cruz and Watsonville city councils approved resolutions in support of the Rail Trail business plan, with Watsonville holding a special meeting late last week, citing the timing of this week’s RTC meeting.

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Although Thursday’s item is only informational in nature with no action required from commissioners, a commissioner could request to have the business plan put on a future agenda for another vote.

For that to happen, however, the commission would need to have another vote to bring the issue back, according to RTC staff. That means at least one commissioner would have to break last month’s tie.

How do I watch the meeting?

The meeting begins at 9 a.m. tomorrow on Zoom. To watch on the web, go to https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89559435768

To dial in, call (669) 900-6833 and use the webinar ID 895 5943 5768.

What does RTC staff say about what’s going to happen Thursday?

Here’s the Rail Trail item as it appears in the RTC agenda: