The Trouble with Santa Cruz Passenger Rail

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I wanted to share with you all what I feel is the trouble with Santa Cruz Passenger Rail.

When Santa Cruz county was able to purchase the Santa Cruz Branch rail line back in 2012, I was all for it. Finally something would be done with the rail line, which had lain dormant for years, and for many decades before that had been little used except to ship freight from the Davenport cement plant. But now the question lies before us: is passenger rail service really the best use of that corridor?

Iowa Pacific Train in Aptos

Iowa Pacific Train in Aptos

The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is currently doing a rail service passenger feasibility study, to see what kind of passenger rail service might work in Santa Cruz county. They are looking at a number of options, and are working with a several local, regional, and statewide government entities and an outside consulting firm on the study. They are also soliciting input from the community, and have planned a number of workshops throughout the county during the study process. The study is to be completed in late 2015.

The RTC has a lot of work on its plate. Obviously, the traffic in Santa Cruz is shockingly bad given our relatively small population. The RTC is tasked with reducing green house gasses and vehicle miles traveled, and bringing passenger rail to Santa Cruz county is envisioned to be a part of the solution to those goals.

Let me say clearly that don’t pretend to be an expert in public policy, transportation, or rail lines. I am however on the Local Government Relations committee at the board of Realtors, and last year I sat in on a briefing on this and other projects. I have also attended a couple of RTC meetings, and recently went to the first of the feasibility study workshops. I’m trying to be as informed as I can about the project, and to keep an open mind.

Although the passenger rail study won’t be completed for more than a year, I already have strong doubts that any kind of rail service is going to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses and get people out of their cars and onto public transportation. There are a number of reasons I think this:

  1. Metro buses are almost completely empty today
  2. Train service will be slow
  3. Train service will be expensive
  4. Public transportation options around train stations will be weak
Distressed Metro Bus

Distressed Santa Cruz Metro Bus

Judging from how little used the metro buses are, I have little reason to believe that people would opt for a train service that is even slower, more expensive, and offers less flexible routes. If the train ever is built, it seems to me it will end up being more of a novelty for tourists rather than a practical means of moving residents around the county.

And then there’s the cost. What’s this train system going to cost to build out? Nobody knows, because the system hasn’t been designed yet. There are many variables, but at the workshop held this week, I talked to a number of RTC staffers and a consultant, and it turns out that the train is going to cost between $10 million and $25 million per mile. They are using a figure of $250 million for total project cost as a number to plan around, but it could be much more, and probably not a penny less.

And where’s that money going to come from? The RTC is not sure where exactly this money is going to come from, but they point to two sources: grants, and an increase in sales tax. The grants aren’t something which can be counted on, however, so it really comes down to a sales tax increase to pay for the train.

That’s a lot of cheddar to collect from sales tax. I imagine there’ll be a bond measure, which residents will be asked to vote on, with an increase in sales tax for decades to pay for the bond. It will amount to a permanent, and probably significant, hike in sales taxes. Yay!

Santa Clara VTA Light Rail

VTA Light Rail

And that’s just to build the system out. As I understand it, most (if not all) rail systems around here rely on public subsidies to keep them running. I understand that Santa Clara County’s VTA light rail is a huge money drain with low ridership and slow service – and each rider receives a $10 per-round-trip subsidy. Sweet!

My last quibble with the idea of passenger rail service in Santa Cruz is that we need a solution to get cars off the road today. The RTC is expecting it will take 5-10 years to build the system out. Is it just me, or does that seem overly optimistic? It seems like the environmental impact reports alone could take that long. And don’t forget the lawsuits which will undoubtedly snarl up the process for years as well. I know in my gut that if the RTC is saying it’ll take 5-10 years, we’re really looking at 10-20. That’s a long time to wait, with traffic problems growing that whole time.

Santa Cruz can’t afford to wait to build out a rail system it really can’t afford to build or operate. So what are the alternatives? Like I said, I’m no expert in transportation or public policy, but I have some ideas I’ll share with you in my next blog post on the subject. Stay tuned!

Seb Frey
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Seb Frey

Broker/Owner at Realty World Virtuoso
AptosCommunityNews.org is brought to you by Sebastian "Seb" Frey.Seb is a longtime Aptos resident and home owner.   He's married with two boys, and like all of us, loves Aptos with a passion.  Seb is a real estate broker (BRE #01369847) by trade and works to strengthen the community he serves, lives in, and loves.  If you need any help with Real Estate in Aptos or anywhere in Santa Cruz county, you can reach Seb at (831) 704-6873.
Seb Frey
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