The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission on Dec. 1 approved a contract with an engineering company that will conduct a preliminary study of a rail line that could transport passengers along the breadth of the county.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based HDR Inc. is expected to take about two years to complete its work.
The initial early engineering phase will look at infrastructures such as tracks, bridges and trestles, ridership and revenue forecasts projection and a study of potential operations plans on the rail between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
It will also include extensive community input and provide cost estimates for the rail system’s capital, operation and maintenance.
“Task 1’s” $3 million price tag will come from 2016’s Measure D funds–the county does not have the funds to pay for the remaining three tasks, which are estimated to cost over $7.7 million and include more comprehensive studies.
The RTC will look to competitive grants for funding. The commissioners will then amend the contract with HDR to include additional preliminary work once funding is secured.
In 2021, the RTC identified electric passenger rail as the locally preferred transportation alternative.
The issue has long been a hotbed of controversy for the county. Many call passenger rail a boondoggle that will cost the county hundreds of millions, saying that a trail-only model should replace the tracks.
RTC officials have said it could cost as much as $60 million to make the needed improvements to the track before a rail system can even be considered.
The item passed 11-1, with only Commissioner Randy Johnson voting against it.
Johnson said he was skeptical about the future viability of rail in Santa Cruz County, as evidenced by Bay Area Rapid Transport and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, both facing ridership. He also pointed to Santa Cruz’s METRO system, which has trouble filling seats.
“What is the future of rail,” Johnson said. “Can anybody honestly say this is a vibrant, expanding, exciting sort of future? I’m looking for results.”
But RTC Director Guy Preston warned against such thinking, saying that California’s recent budget surplus created a $150 million fund from the Intercity Rail Capital Program for which transit agencies can apply.
“I do not think the state and federal governments have given up on rail,” he said.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Andy Shiffrin acknowledged that the initial phase of the rail project and future costs would be expensive. But he pointed to Measure D, the Nov. 2022 measure in which 70% of voters signaled strong support for keeping the rail line intact.
“I don’t know whether it will be possible to have a feasible passenger rail system between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, but I think we need to look at it,” he said. “I think this contract moves us along the way.”
Commissioner Greg Caput, whose district includes parts of Watsonville, said that voting “no” isn’t an option.
“We’d basically be saying the voters didn’t know what they were voting on,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to have rail or pursue it, it seems like it would be a slap in the face to the voters.”
Still years in the future—if it ever comes to fruition—the passenger rail would be subject to numerous risks that must be addressed, including encroaching waves, sea level rise and conflicts where the rail crosses traffic.
Preston said it also faces uncertainty regarding its environmental impacts, as work along the bluffs above Manresa and Harkins Slough faces scrutiny from state officials.
“We need to start meeting with the Coastal Commission early and talk to them about what they are going to require in terms of an alternatives analysis to ensure that we don’t move forward with a project that is not buildable,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Rotkin pointed out that some of the Measure D funds were approved by voters specifically to fund rail. He added that the vote before the board was merely to fund the study, not to approve the future rail project.
“The public has given us money to at least study the feasibility of rail,” he said. “We’re not stealing it from other places in the Measure D expenditure model or other kinds of modes of transportation.”
The item garnered some public response. Sally Arnold said communities could reap several benefits from investing in their public transportation systems.
“You’re talking about an investment in our community,” she said. “It is a public service, but there are also going to be economic returns, and we just need to think about the big picture.”
Mark Mesiti Miller of Santa Cruz Friends of the Rail Trail called the vote “another very important step toward realizing the community’s vision of fully realizing the existing rail corridor with benefits for everyone.”
Brian Peoples of Trail Now added that the Commission should start the process by asking the California Coastal Commission whether they would approve the passenger rail in their jurisdiction since he reckons that agency is not likely to do so.
“You keep saying that we need to spend the money to understand the risks, but we already know it,” he said. “These aren’t risks; they’re facts. I think we all need to step back and ask, ‘Is it worth the $7 million commitment?’”