The RTC studies passenger rail options on a line from Davenport to Watsonville
On a warm summer evening in Santa Cruz County, while many are enjoying the spoils of the workday’s end, a drove of concerned citizens files into the Live Oak Senior Center for a public workshop. Amidst the stifling air of a packed house with standing room only, Karena Pushnik, senior transportation planner at the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), takes the floor.
“We need to be looking at, not only what our needs are today, but also to the future,” says Pushnik. “That’s going to be one of the challenges that I’m putting out to all of you.”
In May 2012, the RTC acquired the 32-mile rail line that stretches along the county’s coast from Davenport to the Pajaro Valley. The RTC purchased the rail branch with funding from the voter-approved state ballot measure, Proposition 116, which stipulates that the line will ultimately be used for passenger rail service. The RTC has studied the feasibility of the potential passenger rail options for the corridor—from dinner trains to streetcars.
“The other things that are important to keep in mind is that the corridor is roughly parallel to Highway 1, and we all know Highway 1 is congested,” says Pushnik. “This is one of the purposes why we are looking at this corridor.”
After gaining input from county residents in the form of online surveys and outreach at public events, the first phase of the RTC’s passenger rail study is complete. The next step for the RTC is to pin down three to five specific scenarios for further analysis. Some possible types of trains that could operate on the track include:
- The classic locomotive: a simple train that comes at a low cost compared to other types of train technologies, and is the standard commuter rail car along the West Coast. One example of a locomotive in contemporary use is the Seattle Sounder in Washington.
- Heavy diesel multiple unit (DMU): a type of self-propelled rail car that will be used in the future SMART passenger rail/pedestrian pathway project in Sonoma and Marin counties.
- Light DMU: unlike their heavy counterparts, these cars are not able to transport freight and passengers simultaneously.
- An electrical multiple unit train (EMU): the type of technology that Caltrain, in the San Jose area, is proposing to operate in 2019 when it electrifies its system. The EMU is a higher cost option with a price tag around $35 million for a complete train set, but there is an option to purchase used EMUs at a lower cost.
- Light rail transit vehicles, which are currently being considered for future use in San Francisco, and are currently used in cities like Sacramento.
- Passenger streetcar: at a lower price range and a slower speed, streetcars are in wide use in cities such as Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington.
Whatever the specific type of train technology the RTC decides to implement once the study and planning periods are complete, the rail service would coexist with the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail—a pedestrian and bicycle path that will run adjacent to the line.
Some at the passenger rail workshop wondered why there was no study to examine bicycle and pedestrian use of the corridor exclusively.
“I am wondering whether your study is going to do any analysis of people who are against passenger rail, or who would like to see the tracks pulled up?” one woman asked.
RTC staff and consultants say that’s not something they’re looking at, because Prop 116, which authorized the funds to purchase the corridor, requires that the rail line be used for passenger rail service. That means that pulling up the tracks and building a stand-alone pedestrian path is not an option at this point.
"There are no plans for only one of the transportation options," writes Pushnik in an email to GT.
In addition to the public feedback provided at the July 17 workshop, more than 1,200 county residents completed the RTC’s online survey. According to the survey results as of press time, 44 percent of respondents felt that they were extremely interested in using a train to get around the county, while 14 percent were not at all interested. Considering the positive and negative impacts to the county in the long term, 66.5 percent felt that passenger rail would be very good, and at the other end of the spectrum, 11.2 percent of those who responded to the survey felt passenger rail would be very bad for Santa Cruz County. The main concern expressed in the survey, was the cost of building, and the maintenance that comes with the rail’s day-to-day operations.
The Transit Authority of Monterey County is in the early stages of a plan to create a rail line from Salinas to Gilroy with a station stop in Pajaro. One day, people may be able to take the train from Santa Cruz, the Bay Area or practically anywhere else across the state.
With the RTC looking to the future of passenger rail service, it can be easy to forget that the railroads of the past forged Santa Cruz County into what it is today. In fact, the rail corridor purchased by the RTC is more than 135 years old, and was once a part of a rail network that ran within the county and beyond.
While rail cars were originally intended to ship lumber and other commodities they soon became a means to transport people and bolster tourism until automobiles, and modern road technology arose in the 1920s and 1930s, according to an essay by historian Susan Lehman. Motorized buses then replaced the streetcars that once ran throughout the city of Santa Cruz around that time, and recreational uses of rail, like the SunTan Special, which ran from San Francisco to the Boardwalk, later fell by the wayside.
Now, as the traffic congestion and environmental impacts of cars and trucks have become problematic, the county looks to the transportation solutions of the past to solve the issues of the present.
In the near future, the RTC hopes to complete the passenger rail study, and adopt a final plan by spring of 2015. If any of the passenger rail options are found to be feasible by the RTC, planning and construction would ensue in the coming years. In an ideal scenario, the county could have passenger rail along the corridor by 2020, but it could easily be a decade or more before passenger rail becomes a reality in Santa Cruz County.
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