A segment of the old branch rail line in Santa Cruz County.
A segment of the old branch rail line in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Rail on coastal corridor takes next step by 9-3 vote, but cost questions take center stage, too

Although three quarters of RTC members voted to accept a recommendation that both rail and a recreation path run along the coastal corridor, that vote far from guarantees that passenger rail will ever be implemented.

Santa Cruz County’s long-debated Rail Trail project will stay on track for now, taking another step forward Thursday as the Regional Transportation Commission approved a staff recommendation that passenger trains should someday run along a coastal corridor adjacent to a recreation path.

During an at-times chaotic and contentious meeting, the RTC — a 12-member group of county supervisors, other local elected officials and members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metro bus service — voted 9-3 to accept the staff report that points to electric rail as the “preferred local alternative” transit option to connect Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

Although three quarters of RTC members voted to accept the report and its rail-and-trail recommendation, the vote far from guarantees that passenger rail will ever be implemented. The next step is to develop a business plan for the project that will be presented in April.

RTC members Jacques Bertrand, a Capitola city council member; Randy Johnson, a Scotts Valley city council member; and Manu Koenig, the recently elected first district county supervisor who made a trail-only option for the corridor a centerpiece of his campaign, voted against accepting the report.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meets via video conference on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
(Patrick Riley/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I cannot support approving the staff recommendation without a clear, detailed analysis of what the costs are to our public,” Bertrand said.

During a meeting fraught with arguments over procedure and a flurry of motions and amendments, concerns over future costs and how to pay for a train bubbled up even among board members who voted to approve the staff report.

“What I’ve derived from all these various studies that we’ve been through is that transit on the corridor is incredibly expensive,” said Patrick Mulhearn, a staff member for Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend, who was serving as Friend’s board designee Thursday.

“I think that we’ve factored in some optional funding sources that we may be able to tap over the next 25 years to reach the half a billion dollars that it’s going to take to build this,” he continued. “I don’t dispute that that money is available for building. But there isn’t any money, or there certainly isn’t enough money for operations and maintenance.”

The annual operating cost for rail service is estimated to be about $23 to $25 million per year, according to the staff report.

Before the vote on the report, Mulhearn suggested adding language to the RTC resolution to require that a local tax measure supporting rail transit be passed by voters for it to move forward after environmental studies are complete.

“By my calculations we’re short by 12 to $15 million a year to pay for this,” he said. “There’s no way that a transit system, obviously, can be implemented without addressing this funding shortfall first.”

Mulhearn’s proposed amendment, however, failed to garner enough support to pass.

RTC member Mike Rotkin, representing the Santa Cruz Metro bus service, told his colleagues that Thursday’s decision was about picking the county’s preferred transit alternative along the corridor and not focusing on costs. “It’s not a decision to begin pouring millions or billions of dollars into a particular system,” he said.

But he also made it clear that he envisions a rail line as something that the county needs in the long run. “Tearing up the rails, deciding on trail-only, means that we’ll never have decent public transit through this county,” he said.

A business plan, which is expected to come before the RTC April 1, will include a cash flow analysis that shows officials how much money would be needed on an annual basis to move the various components of the project ahead. It will also lay out the next steps to take and where funds for the project could be pulled from.

The project and its studies have sparked passionate discussions among supporters of a rail-and-trail vision and proponents of a trail-only future. The latter group has said a train option would be too expensive and not feasible in a county this size.

“When you actually ask the community by putting it to a vote, then we’ll see what the true preferred alternative is,” one citizen, Deb Molina, told the RTC. “And I know the community wants a trail only.”

Bud Colligan, a board member of Greenway, a trail-only advocacy group, said in an email to Lookout Thursday that most commissioners have a “high degree of skepticism about the financial feasibility and that will be evident in April when the business plan is presented.”

“The real vote was 7-5 on multiple attempts to amend the staff’s resolution,” he wrote. “The Commission has become dysfunctional as seen by the meeting today.”

But supporters of a future passenger train along the corridor said Thursday, as they have previously, that their vision is needed for equitable and sustainable access to public transit in the county.

“The train is an investment in our future,” resident Benjamin Levine told the RTC. “An investment in sustainable transit and the sustainable development that relies on it.”

Mark Mesiti-Miller, vice chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail, called the RTC’s decision a “good vote” and a “strong endorsement” of moving forward with passenger rail.

And though some people are “understandably nervous” about the costs, Mesiti-Miller said state and federal officials would pay “the lion’s share” of the eventual project.