The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line
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.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘This is a timeout’: Rail Trail stalls without $17 million needed for next steps

The train project is stuck in a bind: State and federal funding is unlikely to come down without local funding, and locals are unlikely to want to tax themselves without a clear plan or a financial commitment from the state or federal government.

A plan to have passenger rail service along the coast of Santa Cruz County switched into slow gear this week due to a $17 million funding gap that must be filled for the train proposal to move forward.

Although the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) approved a study earlier this year citing electric passenger rail as the “preferred alternative,” members reached a deadlock in April when it came time to approve a business plan for the project. That vote would have directed RTC staff to pursue money to make rail a reality.

At Thursday’s meeting, amid confusion about whether approval of the business plan was necessary, RTC Executive Director Guy Preston laid out the financial conundrum for commissioners.

“In developing the business plan, our biggest challenge was identifying a potential funding source for the next step, which would have been preliminary engineering and environmental document,” he said. “Historically, state and federal funding has not been made available to fund this component of the work, and certainly not without a significant local match.”

A dedicated local funding source, which requires voter approval, would be needed to backfill the anticipated shortfall, Preston said in an email.

As a result, the train project is stuck in a bind: state and federal funding is unlikely to come down without local funding, and locals are unlikely to want to tax themselves without a clear plan or a financial commitment from the state or federal government. Despite the funding gap, rail remains on the long list of RTC projects — and so commission staff will still pass along any funding opportunities to the RTC for consideration. But the search for money will be more passive, since the business plan wasn’t approved, RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz said.

At Thursday’s meeting, commissioner Eduardo Montesino of Watsonville made a motion for the RTC to vote on the business plan again in a future meeting, but that was shut down. Other commissioners said, based on Preston’s comments, that another vote would be a waste of time and result in the same outcome: a split between train opponents and proponents.

“This is a timeout for me, and I hope it’s a timeout for the rest of the board,” commissioner Jacques Bertrand of Capitola said.

Until RTC staff come across funding pools for the next steps on passenger rail, the RTC will be tasked with handling a variety of other transportation-related decisions.

Outside of the commission, special interest groups on either side of the Rail Trail debate interpreted Thursday’s standstill in different ways. Rail advocates, such as Friends of the Rail & Trail Board Chair Faina Segal, said their vision is still basically on track.

“Planning for rail will continue, with a focus by RTC staff on identifying funding sources for an Environmental Impact Report for the project. The community has spoken strongly in favor of rail, RTC commissioners have approved rail as the preferred transit use, and RTC staff have responded appropriately with a decision to move forward with planning,” Segal said in a written statement. “What I’m hoping for, and what I expect, is that there will be future votes in the near future to accept funding opportunities that will be identified from sources at the state and federal levels.”

Those pushing for only a trail along the 32-mile coastal corridor considered it a significant step toward derailing the project forever.

“It’s clear that there are six commissioners who are not going to go forward with a plan that is completely unfunded, and that will be the case for the foreseeable future,” said Bud Colligan of Greenway Santa Cruz County. “The notion of getting an [environmental study done] and doing the train, that’s over. It’s done.”

Still, even commissioners who voted against the business plan in April say rail remains a possibility.

“Of course there are a lot of revenue sources that work for both buses and trains, so then the discussion will have to be whether we pay for a train or a bus — which is at the heart of my opposition to rail transit,” said Patrick Mulhearn, the alternate for County Supervisor Zach Friend on the RTC. “I’d like to think that this is the end of the conversation but there are a lot of people (but not a majority) who firmly believe that the benefits of adding a new transit mode outweigh any concerns about actually paying for it.”

Some, like County Supervisor Manu Koenig, say voters should be the ultimate authority on whether they want a trail or a side-by-side train and trail. Koenig also voted against the business plan last month and is a longtime critic of the rail project.

“The commission’s 6-6 vote sent a clear message that it’s time to spend our limited staff time looking at alternatives” to passenger rail, Koenig said in an email. “The door is not completely closed to rail. Only the voters can do that. I believe we need a public vote on the use of the corridor in 2022 to end the debate and move forward.”

• • •

On Friday afternoon, the staff of Santa Cruz County’s Regional Transportation Commission issued a lengthy statement following recent events in the Rail Trail saga, including Thursday’s RTC meeting. Below is the full text of that statement.

RTC Statement Regarding Future Rail Transit Planning

Working to improve transportation in any community can be quite challenging and Santa Cruz County is no exception. We are a very engaged and passionate community because we care deeply and want the best for our community. In addition, there is much information to sift through when considering large complex projects and anyone of us may misinterpret or misunderstand some of that information. The recent passionate community discussion along with actions and statements at the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meetings regarding the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis seem to have led to the following misunderstandings that warrant clarification.

Misunderstanding #1: The RTC has given up $17 million in funding offered by the State for environmental analysis of electric passenger rail on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line.

In fact, the State has not awarded any funds to the RTC for environmental review of electric passenger or any other transit option on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. The State expressed support for the RTC seeking such funding from State sources that are competitive.

Misunderstanding #2: There is sufficient State and Federal funding available and only a small local contribution would be needed to fund rail transit.

In fact, although there are several funding sources that could potentially contribute to local rail transit, there is not sufficient funding for all of the rail transit needs identified in California and the nation. There are recent proposals to increase funding for transportation, including rail transit, but that new funding will still fall well short of meeting all the needs. The RTC has authorization to distribute some discretionary funds sources for transportation projects that can be used on rail transit projects, but those funds are currently committed to other projects, such as Highway 1 and local road maintenance. There are competitive state and federal funding sources for which the RTC could apply to receive. Although some operation and maintenance funding can come from future fares and concessions, a dedicated local fund source would be needed for the remaining cost, which is estimated to be about half of the total cost over a 30-year period.

Misunderstanding #3: The RTC’s decision to not accept the business plan means the end of rail transit for Santa Cruz County.

Santa Cruz County and the RTC have a long history of decisions regarding potential passenger rail service in Santa Cruz County. Many of those decisions have been unanimous or nearly unanimous in support of efforts that could potentially lead to passenger rail transit. It would be an expensive project, so it is understandable for the RTC to be cautious and at times say that it is not ready to proceed with such a major project at any point in time. However, the RTC has been quite consistent in not wanting to close off potential options that could serve future generations, even if those options may not be appropriate at this time. Therefore, the RTC has not taken any action that would ensure that there would never be passenger rail service in Santa Cruz County.

Misunderstanding #4: Despite the RTC’s decision to not accept the business plan for electric passenger rail and rejecting direction to RTC staff to seek funding for environmental review of electric passenger rail, RTC staff will continue planning for electric passenger rail and seek the funding that may be needed.

In fact, RTC staff will always follow the decisions of the RTC. Based on the current position of the RTC, RTC staff is not currently undertaking or contemplating any rail transit planning activity. However, based on long-standing RTC policy and practice, RTC staff will continue to work to try to implement all projects in the RTC Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and inform the RTC of funding opportunities for such projects, including for rail transit. Any potential future rail planning activity will be subject to funding availability and future action by the RTC.