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Morning Lookout: Rail Trail costs, downed powerline a possible cause of Jan. wildfire and more

Good Morning! It’s Tuesday, Feb. 9. Today we will have some intermittent clouds and a high of 58. There might be a few sprinkles through the day, but the National Weather Service estimates up to an inch of rain later in the week.

This morning, we’re learning that Cal Fire is investigating whether downed power lines caused at least one January wildfire in Santa Cruz County. Meanwhile, new research out of UC Santa Cruz reveals mountain lions are going to great lengths to avoid humans in our county and that might result in them becoming endangered.

Later today, the Watsonville City Council is expected to decide whether to move a bust of George Washington from City Plaza after hundreds signed a petition late last year. The Santa Cruz City Council is set to meet this morning and discuss the impact of the pandemic on city coffers.

On the vaccine front, the county has opened a new site for certain groups of people but the rollout remains slow. Meanwhile, #BOLO on our website as a statewide deal to vaccinate teachers might come together and affect school reopenings here and elsewhere.

Let’s get the headlines started with the latest on Rail Trail:

How much will rail cost, is it worth it, and what about fares?

An electric rail line in Denton County, Texas.
An electric rail line in Denton County, Texas.
(Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission )

Despite a 9-3 vote last week to move ahead with passenger rail as part of Santa Cruz County’s transit future, several members of the county’s Regional Transportation Commission expressed concern about how much such a project might cost to build and operate. Now, we’re learning three of Santa Cruz County’s four mayors have concerns of their own.

According to staff for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, the estimated costs of either electric commuter trains or electric light rail are similar: between $450 and $471 million for construction, and $23 and $25 million per year for operating costs. Read more about the four mayors’ takes, the costs of the project, and whether it will be put before voters in this story by Mallory Pickett and Isabella Cueto.

Presented by UC Santa Cruz

The campus continues to make advancements in the areas of housing, transportation, and water conservation.

Cal Fire investigating downed wires as ‘potential origin’ of Freedom Fire, PG&E report says

A down powerline on top of the ridge
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

A day after Cal Fire cited embers from the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August as the cause of most of the unusual Santa Cruz County wildfires in January, Lookout has learned that the Freedom Fire that burned nearly 40 acres near Watsonville and resulted in the days-long evacuation of about 100 nearby homes, has been under investigation as potentially being caused by a downed PG&E power line. Patrick Riley and I dive in to more about what happened here.

MORE: Early on, PG&E came under fire after local officials questioned whether a Public Safety Power Shutoff might have prevented at least some of the fires in Santa Cruz County. Read our January Lookout special report here.

‘The landscape of fear’: Big cats pay a price for avoiding areas now inhabited by humans

New research from UC Santa Cruz scientists found that mountain lions are going to great lengths — and burning a lot of calories — trying to avoid human contact, which isn’t a good thing. “At a certain point too they’re going to be unable to persist because they literally can’t feed themselves despite moving less,” said scientist Chris Wilmers. Read more about how researchers fitted some big cats with devices similar to FitBits to learn how they’re navigating our region and what this all means in Mallory Pickett’s report.

#BOLO — City Councils meet today

Santa Cruz and Watsonville leaders both are expected to discuss how the pandemic has impacted the amount of money their cities are collecting during city council meetings at 10:45 a.m. and 4 p.m., respectively, today. Additionally, Watsonville council members are set to take up the controversial issue of whether to relocate the George Washington bust from City Plaza. We’ve updated our story on the Washington bust with the latest information, including how to watch the 4 p.m. Watsonville meeting. Also, Be On the Lookout for coverage of both council meetings this evening.

COVID 2021 Updates

syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Alameda County health workers prepare different sized syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a distribution clinic at St. Rose hospital in Hayward on Jan. 27, 2021.
(Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters)

Today’s vaccine snapshot:

  • Total vaccine administered in county: 40,529 doses
  • County has received: 28,050 doses
  • County has administered: 16,395 doses
  • Doses required to vaccinate everyone in Phase 1a and those over 65: 118,000 doses (estimated)

How to sign up for an appointment at the county’s new vaccine site: The county announced the opening of a new vaccination site in Watsonville today. It will utilize the county’s limited allocation of vaccines to serve health care workers in phase 1A, county residents 75 and older, and people 65 and older from select Pajaro Valley Zip Codes. County Communications Manager said the county might start administering vaccines based on occupation next month. Learn more, including how to sign up, here.

Possible legislative deal over teacher vaccines could bring elementary students back to class statewide: More California elementary school students could begin returning to their classrooms by the spring if Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers settle their differences over when teachers and staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations, an agreement the governor suggested yesterday could be reached in the next few days. However, even a gradual reopening of campuses will be directly tied to a contentious issue: Should educators get a guaranteed place in line for COVID-19 vaccinations when there are not nearly enough doses to go around? Read more of this statewide outlook by our content partner, the LA Times here.

At the local level: Under existing state guidelines, school employees are eligible to receive a vaccine, but it is up to local health agencies to decide when they can make appointments. In Santa Cruz County, with a dearth of vaccines coming in, public health officials have made it clear they’re prioritizing elderly folks who face the greatest risk. Read more from our Friday story here. And #BOLO for more local coverage of this issue on our website.

BE IN THE KNOW: You can keep track of all daily vaccine and COVID-19 news in our expanded COVID 2021 section and to stay on top of things as they happen, sign up for my colleague Mark’s COVID-19 newsletter and text alerts here or just text “Covid” to (831) 508-7524.

Around the county . . .

Local advocacy group touts oral health success, working for more (The Pajaronian)

Cabrillo gallery exhibit explores history of Black photographers (Good Times)

History and Hope: A conversation with Seaside’s John Nash (KSBW-TV)

That’s it for today. If you’re enjoying our coverage, please tell your family and friends about our Lookout Newsletter & Text Center, where they can sign up for all the newsletters and alerts we offer. You can also keep tabs on everything we’re publishing through the day by bookmarking our website and following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Have a great day!

Tulsi Kamath
Managing Editor