Supervisor Manu Koenig rides an electric streetcar Saturday as part of the Coast Futura demonstration.
Supervisor Manu Koenig rides an electric streetcar Saturday as part of the Coast Futura demonstration.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The third rail of Santa Cruz County politics: Electric streetcar steps into the political transit fray

A demonstration of an electric streetcar in Watsonville on Saturday was decried by Supervisor Manu Koenig, who said the idea was not a viable transit option. Coast Futura representatives, who are running the multi-week event, said it is just a demonstration to gauge community interest, and not connected to proposals TIG/m, the manufacturer of the streetcar, has with the regional transit authority.

Calling it unproven, expensive and untenable, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig spoke out against the Coast Futura — a zero-emission streetcar that began its demonstration event Saturday in Watsonville — at its public debut.

Koenig, who called the event a “publicity stunt” in a release the day prior, said that creating an electric light rail would cost millions in taxpayer dollars and might not even work, given that it would have to cross railroad trestles that have been out of service for up to two decades.

The Coast Futura is offering rides on Saturday and Sunday in Watsonville and will be doing a similar demonstration in Santa Cruz next weekend. Organizers say they want to show the viability of a no-emission, electric rail line.

Reservation tickets, which were free, ran out 12 hours after being announced, said spokesperson Trink Praxel. The 40-minute ride departed on the hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with about 25 passengers along for the ride.

Next weekend, the Santa Cruz demonstration will take passengers from the Beach Boardwalk to Capitola, while the Watsonville demonstration goes from downtown Watsonville to near Sunset Beach. Both are about a 4-mile ride.

Koenig, who said his own ride on the streetcar was slow and noisy, said he did not find it to be “a realistic proposal.”

“This will never run in Watsonville, and it’s misleading to have the demonstration down here,” he said.

Koenig said it makes more sense to focus on improving the current Metro bus service — noting there are 21 driver openings, which has led to a decrease in service — “rather than wasting time on a mall trolley.”

Santa Cruz County Greenway, a group Koenig formerly led, called the Coast Futura an unnecessary privatization of a transit line and one that would simply not relieve any congestion.

Greenway critiques one idea proposed by the streetcar’s manufacturer, TIG/m in September, to run a line from Capitola to Davenport, saying it would be primarily tourist- — not resident- — driven.

The group has long advocated for the Santa Cruz Branch Trail Line to be used for bike and foot paths, with expanded transit options along Highway 1, among other proposals. It announced in July it is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative for an interim trail, or “greenway,” down the center of the unused rail corridor.

Part of the controversy lies in the use of “railbanking,” a process by which rail right-of-way can be used in a variety of ways, including a greenway or a light-rail transit system. Because the rail could be removed, advocates of a rail line say once the area becomes more like a park, there will be extreme public resistance to its future use for transit.

Praxel stressed that Coast Futura is not TIG/m. Instead, it is an organization set up specifically for the demonstration. She said it has no part in what any future lines involving the company might be or where they would go.

Rather, the two week of streetcar offerings are simply a “demonstration.”

She explained the multi-week event was “a demonstration of technology and not a proposal,” and no future formal meetings or hearings are scheduled. The point, she says, is to “gauge community response and interest.

“It’s clear that there is a great deal of interest in new ideas for public transit in our community, especially in the context of doing more about climate change and increasing access to alternative transportation options,” she said.

Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Executive Director Guy Preston said that he has received numerous unsolicited proposals from TIG/m in the past few years. He said company submitted the Capitola-to-Davenport idea — as well as one from Santa Cruz to Watsonville — in September.

“It’s not a viable project at this point,” he said. “Right now, it’s not fiscally viable.”

Preston said one of the main issues is that, under the proposal, many of the millions of dollars it would take to make the tracks usable for the streetcar would be borne by the RTC. In addition, there would be other costs, including environmental review.

Advocates for the streetcar called Koenig’s opposition “a failure of imagination,” noting a recent executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that prioritized electric rail options.

“Our community needs visionary leadership on transportation issues, not Supervisor Koenig positioning himself as the Grinch who stole public transit from our future,” Faina Segal, the board chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail, said in a statement to Lookout.

Lookout spoke to a couple of riders getting off Saturday’s 11 a.m. ride.

Gloria Santiago, 17, rode an electric streetcar as part of the Coast Futura demonstration on Oct. 16, 2021.
Gloria Santiago, 17, rode an electric streetcar as part of the Coast Futura demonstration on Oct. 16, 2021.

Alan Iermini, who said he’s lived in Watsonville his entire life, said the streetcar ride was “rocky, but it’s good enough.” He said he’s retired and wouldn’t use it for work, but he’d occasionally take the streetcar if it was available.

“But looking back at the history, it has taught us that these rail systems always go broke,” said Iermini. “And that’s the only drawback.”

Gloria Santiago said she found the ride pleasant, as she was able to see nature from the streetcar. Unlike Iermini, she said the ride was smooth and quiet. But both said their primary use of the train would be to go from Watsonville to Santa Cruz.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story did not state that TIG/m had submitted an unsolicited proposal for a light rail line between Santa Cruz and Watsonville in September.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Lookout is a media sponsor of Coast Futura, one of many marketing relationships Lookout conducts throughout Santa Cruz County. Such relationships are business relationships, which have no influence on our news judgment or coverage.