A satellite view of the rail corridor that, for now, is set to be the site of a trail and passenger train.
A satellite view of the rail corridor that, for now, is set to be the site of a trail and passenger train.
(Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission )
Civic Life

How much will rail cost, and is it worth it? Santa Cruz County’s 4 mayors, others weigh in

Despite a 9-3 vote last week to move ahead with passenger rail as part of Santa Cruz County’s transit future, several members of the county’s Regional Transportation Commission expressed concern about how much such a project might cost to build and operate.

Now, three of the county’s four mayors are raising questions not only about cost, but other aspects of the project, too.

During a Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce event hosted by Lookout journalists on Friday, Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra, Capitola Mayor Yvette Brooks and Scotts Valley Mayor Derek Timm all expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the proposed rail line being a boon for their constituents. Only Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers — who also serves on the RTC and voted for the project — spoke in support of it, noting the “interconnectedness” it would foster countywide, among other things.

Dutra’s take is noteworthy given that rail supporters have said that Watsonville might stand to benefit from passenger rail the most, with a commuter line connecting the city’s residents to jobs in tourist- and tech-friendly Santa Cruz, and potentially opening up South County to more commerce.

Nonetheless, “This should be left up to the voters,” Dutra said. “The voters need to decide whether or not they want to tax themselves for the rail.”

“I know for South County, this isn’t a huge issue as it is in other parts of the county,” Dutra later added. Rail Trail “is not something that we hear even remotely as much as we hear about other issues that are big in our community, like making sure that housing gets taken care of . . . food insecurity. And we have a working class, will this rail be affordable for them?”

A preliminary map of an electric light rail route in Santa Cruz County.
A preliminary map of an electric light rail route in Santa Cruz County.
(Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Said Capitola’s Brooks of Rail Trail: “We’re hearing not so much about the good that would come out of it but, more, how it would change the look and feel of our community. . . . We have a trestle that is pretty beaten down right in the middle of Capitola Village, and so what would that look like? How much would that cost” to fix?

Cost and next steps

According to Regional Transportation Commission staff, the estimated costs of either electric commuter trains (similar to San Francisco BART trains) or electric light rail (like Los Angeles’ L Line) are similar: between $450 and $471 million for construction, and $23 and $25 million per year for operating costs.

Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate and transportation scholar at the Urban Institute, told Lookout that $450 million seemed “on the low side” for a project of this scale, though he thought it might be realistic if the existing rail line is in good condition.

For comparison, the SPRINTER line that runs between Escondido and Oceanside in southern California, and also utilized existing track, cost $477 million to build in the late 2000s. Adjusted for inflation, that would cost somewhere between $570 million and $595 million in 2021.

The RTC staff’s next step is to produce a business plan to be presented to commissioners in April. This document will lay out strategies for when and where the RTC will seek funding. Funding is expected to come through a variety of sources including federal and state grants, and, as Dutra pointed out, some form of a local tax increase.

Ginger Dykaar, a senior transportation planner with the RTC, said that there are no immediate plans to propose a ballot measure to seek tax funding for passenger rail — but that could happen in the future as the project gets closer to breaking ground.

“[If] the need is there to have a ballot measure to provide some operations and maintenance funds for this, then I think that would be the time,” Dykaar said, “because you’re not only asking people if they would support [passenger rail], but also you’re asking people if they would actually pay for it.”

Currently, no funding has been secured for the Rail Trail. But efforts to fundraise haven’t really begun in earnest, and Dykaar points out that the RTC does regularly secure large grants on behalf of county transportation projects. RTC staff recently helped secure about $100 million from the state of California for highway projects, for example.

The fare question

Rider fares are another source of funding, though they are not expected to cover all operations and management costs by any stretch.

According to the RTC’s analysis, fare revenue covers between 20% and 40% of operational costs for most “mature” passenger rail systems in the United States. The RTC’s Transit Alternatives Analysis report acknowledges that successful transit systems require “a balance between fare affordability and farebox recovery that covers a significant percentage of the operations and maintenance costs of the service.”

Yet the fare used to estimate revenue in the TCAA report was an average of $4.50 per one-way trip, assuming a zone-based fare structure which charges more for longer trips.

This would mean the average round-trip cost is $9, so the average commuter would pay $45 per week.

“If one goal of a project like this is to ensure more equitable transportation options, then ensuring that fares are accessible to as many people as possible is very important,” Freemark said. A $4.50 per trip fare is “not accessible,” he said. Freemark also pointed out that low-income people are often the ones most likely to take the longer trips, and a zone-based fare essentially punishes them for that.

Dykaar pointed out that fares for the project are a long way from being determined. “No decisions on the fares have been made by the RTC, as additional analysis will be needed to determine the fare structure for the locally preferred alternative,” she said. “The assumption of a $4.50 fare for rail was made for estimating the funding revenues performance measure.”

Is it worth it?

On Friday, Dutra said he’d like to see the funding side of the project be put together as quickly as possible and taken to voters immediately after that.

“For me, the sooner the better,” he said. “[We] have to face the fact that we have a bus system that we should be making a priority. Do we work on what we have, making that great? Or do we jump in and add in rail, which is going to complicate a system that we already have? These are questions that are going to have to go up to the voters.”

How much Rail Trail say do the mayors have?

Of Santa Cruz County’s four mayors, only Donna Meyers of Santa Cruz had a direct say in whether the Rail Trail project would move forward with a passenger-train option. She is one of three members of the 12-member Regional Transportation Commission to be appointed by the Santa Cruz Metro bus service.

Even though the other three mayors didn’t sit on the RTC, their cities have a say through representatives appointed by their city councils. During last Thursday’s 9-3 vote in support of rail moving forward, RTC members Jacques Bertrand, the Capitola city council representative, and Randy Johnson, the Scotts Valley representative, both voted against rail, as did Manu Koenig, the 1st district county supervisor.

Eduardo Montesino, the Watsonville representative, voted to allow rail to move forward, as did RTC board chair Aurelio Gonzalez, who is appointed by Metro but also is a Watsonville City Council member. Here’s a breakdown of the vote:

Voting Yes
•Aurelio Gonzalez, RTC chair and a Watsonville councilman
•Sandy Brown, the RTC’s vice chair and a Santa Cruz councilwoman
•Donna Meyers, Santa Cruz mayor and representative for Metro
•Greg Caput, fourth district county supervisor
•Andy Schiffrin, an alternate for Third District County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty
•Virginia Johnson, an alternate for Fifth District County Supervisor Bruce McPherson
•Patrick Mulhearn, an alternate for Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend
•Mike Rotkin, a representative for Metro
•Eduardo Montesino, Watsonville councilman

Voting No
•Jacques Bertrand, Capitola councilman
•Randy Johnson, Scotts Valley councilman
•Manu Koenig, first district county supervisor

Mayor Meyers of Santa Cruz has a different view; she said that a rail line connecting her community with Watsonville would only improve the Metro bus system and commuting habits overall.

“The majority of people who come to work in Santa Cruz do not live in Santa Cruz,” she said. “There are a lot of South County [worker] connections obviously because of the tourism service industry . . . [and] the university [UC Santa Cruz] obviously is in North County, so I see the Rail Trail as a way to do that interconnectivity around really facilitating people getting to work faster, more affordably. . . . Our transit system has to also become modernized, and it may look very different generations from now.”

Indeed, trains are now not a part of the daily lives of most Californians, who are used to commuting by car. Freemark pointed out that the rail line in Santa Cruz is part of a larger trend towards building more rail in California. “California has actually been constructing transit projects of this sort more quickly than almost anywhere else in the U.S.,” he said. “The number of transit projects under construction and opening is pretty dramatic.”

As for potential ridership here, “People’s choices about how they get around, the choices about how they live, are informed by centuries worth of development that occurred before them,” Freemark said. “If this were Europe, in a city of 250,000, I would expect a project of this sort to get 50,000 riders a day. But in the U.S., we’re more likely to get five or ten thousand riders a day.”

The RTC is projecting weekday ridership of between 3,000 and 5,000 riders per day. For comparison, the SPRINTER predicted over 11,000 riders per day, and in January 2020 (pre-pandemic) it was averaging 7,053.

“There is no question that the more ridership you get, the more effective the project will be,” Freemark said.”So that’s really the question, is the project being set up to be successful? To attract lots of riders? Or not?”

Whether a rail line is a net positive is a subjective question. For a community like Santa Cruz, Freemark advised the best way to decide if it’s worth it is to look to projects in similar communities — like the SPRINTER in San Diego, or the passenger lines in Marin and Sonoma.

“What are the positives and negatives of those projects? I mean, they cost a lot of money. On the other hand they give people a reliable and convenient option” for getting around, Freemark said. “Those are the trade-offs.”