The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission on Thursday will consider releasing a request for proposals (RFP) for an engineering company to conduct a study intended to prepare for electric passenger rail along the county’s 32-mile track system.
The study would cover the 22-mile stretch between Pajaro Junction in north Monterey County and Natural Bridges Drive in Santa Cruz.
With a cost estimated at around $17 million, the study would help county transportation officials define their vision for how an electric rail system would look, including the number of stops, how frequently the train will run and what the potential ridership will be, says RTC Senior Transportation Engineer Sarah Christensen.
Also included will be a detailed study of how to convert the single-track freight line to a rail transit system, Christensen says.
The report would also include an environmental impact report for segments of the track between Rio del Mar Boulevard and Lee Road, and between Beach Street and the Pajaro Junction.
If the Commission approves releasing the RFP, Christensen estimates the RTC will likely vote on possible proposals in November. The study would then take at least one year to complete.
If approved by the Commission, the RFP would be the most significant step on the controversial rail project since the resounding defeat of Measure D in the June 7 election, which would have changed language in the county’s general plan to focus on a trail-only model. It would also likely have resulted in “railbanking” and the removal of much of the track along the line.
More than 73% of voters rejected Measure D, despite a media blitz by proponents powered by more than $300,000 in campaign contributions.
In 2021, the RTC identified electric passenger rail as the locally preferred alternative.
But the idea of a passenger rail system—an end-of-the-rainbow project still far in the future—has divided the county, with dueling utopian visions for the existing countywide rail line. While many hope for a pedestrian-bicycle path to replace the tracks, others see the possibility of a system that could conceivably connect to the greater Bay Area transportation network and help alleviate gridlock traffic on Highway 1.
RTC officials have said it could cost as much as $60 million to make the needed improvements on the track, even before a rail system can be considered.
Last year, SCCRTC Director Guy Preston recommended that the county not pursue a partnership with a company hoping to provide passenger service between Capitola and Santa Cruz, citing the cost and scope of the project.
If the RFP is approved, the project could not be funded entirely by funds from Measure D—a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2016 that has raised millions for transportation projects countywide.
RTC officials have identified the competitive State Rail Assistance Program funding to pay for the rest, with a required local match of 20%.
Commission staff is recommending that the projects currently under development would continue as separate contracts.
This includes the nearly one-mile stretch currently under construction between the intersection of Bay and California streets and Beach Street in Santa Cruz. When completed in 2023, it will connect with the 1.2-mile trail completed in 2020 that runs from the Bay-California intersection to Natural Bridges Drive, which, the RTC says, serves more than 800 cyclists and pedestrians per day.
Together, they make up Segment 7 of the Coastal Rail Trail, and will create 2.1 miles of the project’s spine between Natural Bridges Drive and Pacific Avenue at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.
The RTC will work with the City of Watsonville to determine whether the stretch of the track there—known as Segment 18—will be included in the study.
The SCCRTC will meet Aug. 4 at 9am in room 525 of the County Board of Supervisors Chambers at 701 Ocean St. in Santa Cruz. It will be the commission’s first in-person meeting. Participants can also attend remotely via Zoom at bit.ly/3zIGfFd.