Moving past Measure D: Santa Cruz’s light rail future will finally go beyond speculation

A section of the rail line near La Selva Beach
A section of the rail line near La Selva Beach.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The rail-trail debate didn’t end up killing us, but did it make us stronger? That will probably depend on the results of a feasibility study local leadership hopes can be launched by November. Either way, having fact-based answers to these long-argued existential questions will be a good place to begin the real conversations about the rail corridor’s future.

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As the rancor of Measure D grew louder and more personal in the earliest days of June, it was the most common refrain heard from many of the people following both sides of the rail line corridor debate up close: These wounds are going to take a long time to heal.

Only, they didn’t.

That’s what a surprisingly one-sided vote — 73% of those who voted speaking up loudly and unequivocally — can do. Fifty-six thousand voters came out to defeat Measure D on June 7 while 20,000 voted in support.

And now, two months and two Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meetings into the post-D non-apocalypse, even if the two sides haven’t joined hands and sung “Kumbaya,” they have come far closer to tranquility than anyone could’ve predicted.

“To go from a deadlocked commission to a unanimous vote so quickly is pretty miraculous,” RTC Commissioner Mike Rotkin told Lookout after last week’s easy greenlight approval for the commission staff to move ahead with a $17 million feasibility study that it will begin receiving proposals on as early as October.

What that will do, at least in theory, is finally answer the questions that have dogged the speculative argument for years: Can it be done, and what will it cost?

“It’s kind of a win-win,” said two-time Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane. “If it doesn’t come back positive, those who have opposed this thing for years will get their chance to say, ‘See I told you it wouldn’t work.’”

Commissioner Manu Koenig admitted during last week’s RTC meeting that he remains in the skeptics’ camp. “If I’m proven wrong, I would honestly be overjoyed,” he said. And to Rotkin, among the staunchest supporters of giving rail a fair shake, there might have been no bigger eye-opener in this process.

“I mean, Manu was the head of Greenway,” he said of the organization founded by local philanthropist and bike trail enthusiast Bud Colligan to push forward on a trail-only future. “I would have never imagined him voting in favor of moving ahead with the train.”

Or, more precisely, the feasibility of a train, which Koenig says was always the core issue before the Measure D rhetoric got more heated and personal.

“I fully support this effort to get more information for voters about the type of service we’ll be able to deliver, the amount of money it will take and the amount of time it will take to deliver a project,” he said. “If in fact passenger rail is not feasible, then I hope it’ll at least be clear that it’s the facts that make it infeasible and not any individual or group being obstructionist.”

So now that we’ve gotten past the hard feelings of Measure D, and now that we know light rail is going to get its due diligence, what exactly does that mean?

Lookout posed those high-level questions to Rotkin, Lane and a few others in the know, including Sarah Christensen, a senior transportation engineer with the RTC.

Is the $17 million needed for the study there?

“I think we’re gonna get that money pretty quickly,” Rotkin said, noting that RTC Executive Director Guy Preston has already met with people at the state level, where most of the available funds are expected to come from.

“There’s a state rail plan and there’s money in that, and the state transportation commission and other groups are really friendly at this point,” Rotkin said. “I think people will be surprised how quickly the funding part of this moves ahead.”

Lane, whose primary mission post-elected life has been affordable housing and homelessness, has watched closely as state and federal dollars are increasingly being made available for those causes. Similarly, he hopes transportation — especially carbon-neutral, non-freeway forms — has the attention of leaders in Sacramento and Washington.

“It’s not a bad time to be trying,” he said. “There are no slam dunks. But from a good public policy space, we’re in a good position.”

I fully support this effort to get more information for voters about the type of service we’ll be able to deliver, the amount of money it will take and the amount of time it will take to deliver a project. If in fact passenger rail is not feasible, then I hope it’ll at least be clear that it’s the facts that make it infeasible and not any individual or group being obstructionist.

— Manu Koenig, on studying the feasibility of light rail along the Santa Cruz Branch Line

Rotkin said he thinks the Measure D result could play a big part in money acquisition: “You can say, ‘Our community is united behind this project.’ It’s not like we’re 40-60 or something. It’s like everybody wants to do this. It makes such a big difference when you go after that money.”

According to Christensen, the actual contract amount needed will be based on cost proposals received by the top consultant and on subsequent negotiation. The RTC staff estimates that 20% of the cost for the work will be locally funded through existing Measure D (2016) sales tax funds.

How long will the process take to accept a proposal?

The consultant selection process will be ongoing through the month of October, Christensen said.

“Staff anticipates recommending a consultant contract for commission approval at the Nov. 3 meeting,” she said. “The work would begin after approval of the contract.”

What will constitute a good proposal?

Christensen said the consultant selection will be “qualifications-based.”

“There are specific selection criteria included in the request for proposal, including past experience performing similar work, expertise of key personnel, and technical approach to the project,” she said. “The selection committee ranks proposals based on the criteria for both the written proposal and interviews, and the top-scoring consultant is considered the most qualified for the project.”

Lookout’s news and opinion coverage of Measure D — a ballot measure in the 2022 Santa Cruz County primary election.

Is there a timeline on the project itself?

“It does not have a schedule set in stone at this time,” Christensen said. “We are wanting the consultant teams to propose a schedule for the work, which will ultimately be negotiated. We anticipate the initial task of developing the operating concept to take one year or more. The next step after the concept report is approved is to prepare an environmental impact report, which typically takes two to three years to complete.”

What if the proposal finds that the project is not feasible?

When all is said and done, potentially four years from now, the cost expectations to perform what is needed for light rail along the Santa Cruz Branch Line corridor might simply be out of practical reach.

“If it turns out the estimated cost is too much, then it’s technically not feasible,” Rotkin said. “I’m not in favor of voting for stuff that can’t happen or that’s stupid.”

“The other side will be able to say, ‘Well, you wanted to try,’” Lane said.

For now, the old college try is being given. As to what it will yield, everyone will just have to stay patiently tuned, one ear pointed toward the railroad tracks.

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