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Commuter rail struggles in regions comparable to Santa Cruz County

Presented by YES Greenway
Wpman sitting alone on rail train
(YES Greenway)

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On June 7th, Santa Cruz County will vote on Measure D, the Greenway Initiative, which instructs the County to prioritize an interim bike and pedestrian trail on the 32-mile rail corridor. The following facts found by YES Greenway regarding commuter rail transit help to explain why a mix of Metro, Bus-on-Shoulder on Highway 1, and Greenway is not only the best, but the only affordable way to move Santa Cruz County transit forward now.

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Our team at Yes Greenway believe that rail transportation absolutely makes sense if the economics and population support the investment. Yet nationwide, we see that as remote work and COVID-19 continue, commuter rail is losing ridership, drowning in red ink, and ultimately becoming less viable. Therefore, we believe it makes sense to evaluate a few rail transit projects in regions with comparable demographics to Santa Cruz County, because facts do matter:

Northbound train at Santa Rosa Downtown Station
(Wikipedia)

  • SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit): A train that was meant to relieve traffic, fight global warming and increase transportation options required a new 1/4 cent sales tax, has been mired in delays, and has not resulted in a measurable reduction in traffic on Highway 101. In 2020 voters resoundingly defeated an extension of the sales tax, and now SMART will run out of funds by 2029 unless voters pass an extension to the tax. It is worth noting that Sonoma and Marin counties have a population 2.8x larger than that of Santa Cruz County (751K vs 270K) in addition to having the city of San Francisco as an endpoint destination – and still we are seeing this kind of failure.
valley transportation authority
(Valley Transportation Authority)

  • VTA (Valley Transit Authority): The light rail system in San Jose (population 1M), which cost $2 billion to build in 1987 ($5 billion in today’s dollars) and currently costs $66 million per year to operate, is one of the most inefficient light-rail lines in the nation. Taxpayers subsidize 85 percent of the service, the second worst rate in the nation. A Civil Grand Jury report released in 2019 found the VTA spent more and accomplished less than nearly every other comparable transit agency in the United States. Sam Liccardo, Mayor of San Jose recently stated, “It’s not just a poor system, it’s a colossally bad system.”
Westside Express Service
(KGW)

  • WES (Westside Express Service): A commuter rail service from Beaverton, OR (population 100K) to Wilsonville, OR (population 26K) that promised 3,000 to 4,000 daily riders for the line by 2020. Daily WES ridership in 2019 was 1,485, and it has drastically fallen since. At the current rate, it costs TriMet nearly $108 per passenger to operate the line, compared to just $9.82 per passenger for bus service.

YES Greenway believes that Santa Cruz County does not have the population to support a train. In addition, the rail corridor does not service most of the county’s major employers like Dominican Hospital, UCSC or Cabrillo College, nor is there a large metropolitan area to connect to. According to Santa Cruz County traffic studies1, a train would remove less than 2% of the traffic on Highway 1, and that assumes ridership projections are met, which from the case studies above, is unlikely.

Rail transit sounds great, but we don’t see how Santa Cruz County can afford to spend $1.3B to build and operate a rail system for the next 30 years while METRO services and our surface streets continue to degrade. The county should use the money already allocated via the transportation tax approved in 2016 to improve METRO, build Bus-on-Shoulder on Highway 1, and turn the unused corridor into a multi-use Greenway, where residents can commute safely to work and school, and enjoy exercise and the beautiful coastline.

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1Average daily Hwy 1 round trips between the Santa Cruz/Monterey County line and the Hwy 1/Hwy 17 interchange were derived from traffic studies summing Highway 1 on-ramp counts and traffic at the Santa Cruz/Monterey County line in 2017.

Paid for by YES Greenway, FPPC ID # 1439610

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