To jump-start light rail future, Santa Cruz County commission readies to spend millions

An old freight train track runs along the local recreational trail.
The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission is moving forward a path toward passenger rail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

An upcoming vote by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission would put millions toward planning light rail service between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

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In the long saga that is passenger rail in Santa Cruz County, a vote by the regional transportation commission scheduled for Thursday amounts to a small turn of the screw. For proponents of the effort, it is progress nonetheless.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission is set to vote on whether to hire a consultant firm to walk the initial baby steps in the larger effort to update the county’s existing freight train line into an electric passenger rail stretching from the Westside of Santa Cruz to Watsonville, with an adjacent hike and bike trail extending toward Davenport.

The emphasis here is on baby steps. If hired by the 12-member commission, Santa Cruz County-based HDR Engineering will initially paint a high-level view of what passenger rail and a completed hike and bike trail would require. The work, expected to take about two years, is expected to produce, among other things, an analysis of available passenger rail technology, forecasts of revenue and ridership, a look at where rail stations and maintenance facilities could be located, and an examination of how and where to tweak the locations of track and trail so the two can run alongside each other. There will be a focus on community outreach throughout.

The decision of the RTC to request contract proposals for this next step in the rail saga came in August, after the results of the June primary showed the community soundly rejecting Measure D, a proposal to ditch rail, pull up the county’s train tracks and replace the path with a recreational trail.

Sally Arnold, a representative with pro-rail group Friends of the Rail & Trail, says the hiring of a consultant to get started on preliminary work represents one of the key decisions for RTC since the agency bought the 32-mile rail track corridor in 2012.

“When you have super complex projects, you need to take it in phases,” Arnold said. “This may amount to a planning document. But you can’t do good work unless you plan for it.”

The RTC, however, has only enough money for the first year of work — $3 million, raised through a 2016 voter-approved tax increase also known as Measure D. An additional $4.8 million is needed to complete the second year of this phase. The RTC will then need just over $12 million more for the following two years of work, which would get the project through the necessary environmental clearances before a final design is developed and approved. Then, shovels can begin moving earth. However, there is no estimate on when this will be.

Whether the RTC can secure that roughly $17 million needed to push the project through environmental clearance remains a question mark. Sarah Christensen, an engineer leading the RTC’s effort, says the commission is competing for a state grant that would finance the rest of that balance. That grant is not guaranteed, but Christensen says she is confident the state of California will come through. “We’re pretty good at securing grants here,” Christensen said of the RTC. However, a plan B is necessary. “We’re constantly researching state and federal grant opportunities. If we get to the point where we’re running out of money, then we’re going to have to come back the commission and potentially borrow money from other Measure D programs.”

Other Measure D (2016) program areas that could loan tax dollars to the rail project include highway corridors, recreational trails, local road maintenance and transportation for seniors and people with disabilities.

HDR Engineering could be the firm that carries the entire project through its state environmental clearances; however, its initial work has to meet the RTC’s standard. The firm’s first 12 months will be fairly busy. Christensen says the firm will need to develop the project’s purpose, forecast ridership, assess the existing infrastructure along the rail tracks — this includes 22 bridges — and figure out the general path of the track and trail. The existing track was an old freight train line for trains loaded with lumber traveling as slow as 10 mph. A modern passenger vehicle traveling upward of 60 mph will likely require more than a few tweaks to the existing track layout, Christensen says.

The RTC is scheduled to meet Thursday at 9 a.m.; you can find the agenda here.

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