Measure D is over. The RTC needs to go after federal and state money.

Rail line near Manresa State Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz voters have spoken. Now what? Mike Rotkin, former five-time Santa Cruz mayor and member of the Regional Transportation Commission, writes about next steps for the RTC and explains how we can get past the logjam and move toward action. That will take federal and/or state funds, some local funding commitment, patience, and a desire to work together.

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The voters spanked Yes on D on June 7, and — given the nearly 3-to-1 defeat of the trail-only plan — Greenway leader Bud Colligan graciously conceded early.

But the question of how to use the rail corridor will not simply go away.

The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), which owns the rail corridor, still needs to decide how to move forward. Later this year, the RTC’s 12 commissioners (I am one) will need to make some hard decisions.

Perhaps the overwhelming defeat of Measure D will break the commission’s 6-6 deadlock on the business plan for the passenger train.

And if that deadlock breaks, perhaps members of our community who still think a passenger train is infeasible will begin to change their minds. That’s what has to happen if we ever can openly discuss next steps and move forward.

The strongest argument for trail-only was and is the alleged impossibility of ever funding the passenger rail system or paying for the subsidies we will need so working-class commuters can afford a ticket.

During the acrimonious campaign, rail supporters perhaps overstated the ease of gaining state and federal funding. But those funds are not completely out of reach, and we must work to try to get them.

What makes the most sense now is to seek state and federal funding for what’s known as a 30% engineering design and environmental impact report for passenger rail service on the corridor. A 30% design plan presents sufficient information to understand the environmental impact of the whole project — and it’s cheaper than analyzing the whole project.

The RTC can’t conduct this study with its own funds alone — even if the revenue stream from the next 25 years of rail money in the 2016 Measure D was bonded to bring the funds forward to the present. Such a report might cost about $15-20 million.

A 30% engineering design report would provide critically important information about the best alignment for the tracks with respect to passenger service. The current alignment includes some curves that barely work for a 10-mph freight train, but will not work for a 50- or 60-mph light rail train. Such engineering design work could also attempt to maximize the space on one side of the tracks for the bike and pedestrian trail, so long as it didn’t compromise the ability of the rail alignment to support a passenger train.

The study would also clarify if the RTC needs to purchase any additional rights of way along the corridor, either to allow for both rail and trail or for required sidings, stations and other parts of the rail system. It also would allow the Santa Cruz Metro Transit District to begin planning for how it would integrate bus services to the train stations into its route designs.

By seeking state and federal grants funds for this design and environmental work, the RTC can resolve the contentious and meaningless debate about whether or not such funds are available.

Opponents of the rail argued that even with state and federal support, passenger service here would require a new local sales tax of as much as half a cent on every dollar spent. Many of the opponents admit that climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and yet they find a half-cent sales tax “an impossible burden on local citizens.”

It would take a great deal of work to pass such a tax measure should it be necessary, but it is hardly impossible. The existing public subsidies for the automobile continue to dwarf those being considered for public transit.

Whatever happened to the “can-do attitude” that built this country? China can build a 200-mph train from Beijing to the mountains for the Olympic Games in about a year, but we can’t come up with the resources for a light rail train on an existing 32-mile corridor?

The RTC has completed three segments of the trail, and the environmental work for three more that will be constructed over the next year or so is being completed. The RTC is considering four more segments for design and environmental work in the next fiscal year (2022-23).

In the case of these latter four segments, the RTC will need to make a critical decision on whether to build these in their “ultimate” configuration next to the tracks or in an “interim” configuration on top of where the tracks are currently.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires doing environmental impact reports (EIRs) on the ultimate plan, with an option to build only the interim trail in the near future, because otherwise, the studies would be illegally “segmenting” the overall project study. EIRs are legally required to look at the complete plan for a project, not just some of the elements that will go into it. But once the environmental work is completed on the ultimate rail and trail plan, the RTC could consider initially just building the interim trail part of the plan.

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Building the interim trail would be less expensive in the short term. But the final cost of building out the ultimate rail and trail plan would be much more expensive if we build interim trail segments now and then we have to rip them out later and replace them with the complete rail and trail the RTC has been planning.

The June 7 vote strongly suggests that the public does not want the RTC to remove the tracks and build the interim trail, but rather construct a project that leaves enough space for the ultimate plan of rail and trail.

A combined rail-and-trail project could require diverting the trail off the corridor and onto city or county streets for certain segments. That became a rallying cry to abandon the train.

That’s a non-issue. Having to get off the trail onto the streets isn’t just a commuting/commuters issue, but one for anyone using the trail. No one really believes Watsonville residents who work in the tourist industry or other jobs in Santa Cruz will use the trail to commute.

To get this going, the RTC needs to go after federal and state grants.

If funding from the state and federal government for development of the train is not forthcoming after we make a serious effort to obtain it, a reasonable compromise would be to focus more effort on the trail.

And if we get funding, let’s move ahead with the train, too.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lecturer and director of the Merrill College Field Study program at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 53 years. His previous piece for Lookout focused on downtown design.

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