Last week, I posted about the trouble with passenger rail service in Santa Cruz. This week, I’m going to talk about a few alternatives to passenger rail service in Santa Cruz which would be more cost effective and achieve better results for the county.
Much to their credit, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission has bigger plans for the rail corridor than merely passenger rail. The grand vision for the project includes building out the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, using the rail corridor as a backbone. A pedestrian and bicycle path is to be built along the train tracks, and the corridor will be the spine of the network, which will ultimately comprise some 50 miles. A trail such as this would surely be a boon to the community, allowing for residents and visitors alike to travel over a large portion of the county, and a lot of the county’s main business centers and tourist draws, on foot or on bicycle.
As mentioned in my previous posting about Santa Cruz passenger rail service, the RTC is currently working on a study of the feasibility of passenger rail service. If the study determines that passenger rail service is not feasible for Santa Cruz county, they will at that time begin looking into alternative uses for the corridor. A key question is, why wait until another 12-18 months have gone by to look into alternative uses for the rail corridor? Why not begin looking into alternatives now, so we don’t have to wait an additional 12-18 months for another study to be completed?
After all, this is not the first time that the RTC has done a passenger rail feasibility study. The RTC conducted a study in 2003 and determined that passenger rail service was not feasible. What has changed in 11 years? The biggest change, obviously, is that the county now owns the rail corridor, and that may change the economics of the project somewhat. And that is undoubtedly true, but not likely near enough to make the project feasible today, or for the foreseeable future.
It seems likely that the ongoing feasibility study will conclude that passenger rail service is not feasible today, and probably not until far in the future. So why not abandon the study, the result of which is almost a foregone conclusion? The RTC points out that the Proposition 116 funds which were used to purchase the corridor requires that the corridor be used for train service, and that if the corridor is not to be used that way, the funds must be returned to the state. However, as I understand it, if can be shown that such a service is not viable, the county can convert the corridor to other uses and will not need to repay the state.
So if not a train, what else can be done to alleviate our congested roads and highways, and cut down on greenhouse gasses? There are, in fact, a number of alternatives, which will likely both be more cost effective, quicker to implement, and will have much better outcomes for county residents and visitors. In the longer term, there are a number of emerging technologies which have better promise for our community as well.
There are a number of people who say the best thing to do is to just rip out the tracks and convert the the rail to trail for use by pedestrians and bicycles. To me, this is an outstanding idea. The train tracks follow a virtually level path for miles – no steep grades. Comparatively few street crossings. It passes by some awesome scenery along its route. Imagine if you could hop on your bike in Aptos Village and ride the trail down to Capitola Village, Seabright Beach, the Boardwalk, and downtown Santa Cruz? Or down to Manresa Beach for the afternoon? It’s likely that taking your bike on this path would take considerably less time on the trail than making the same trip in a car along those congested routes.
Think of the boon to business as well. Local businesses in Aptos Village, Seacliff center, Seascape Village and the Seascape Resort could be easily accessed by visitors from further afield in Capitola, Live Oak, and Santa Cruz. Such a trail would be a huge draw for tourists. Using services like Air BnB, tourists could find accommodations in greater portions of the county – like Aptos – and park their cars and hop on the trail to quickly and easily access many of our area’s most popular attractions. Tourists wouldn’t need to worry about bicycles – Santa Cruz county could have its own bike sharing system like in San Francisco, or leave this as an opportunity for small business to fill the gap.
The cost to build such a trail would not be insignificant – I don’t have any estimates, but I hear it costs $1 million per mile to pave a road. 32 miles, that’s $32 million. Let’s add some more money to that, so we can make other improvements, like adding lighting, benches, a few mini-parks along the path, and maybe create a paracourse for exercise such as runs under portions of the BART tracks in the East Bay. So let’s call it $2 million per mile: $64 million to build out out. Seems like a lot of money, except of course it’s a small fraction of what a rail system would cost to build out, and would surely require far lower subsidies on a per-user basis.
But hey, why stop there? Let’s think a bit outside the box: what more can be done with the corridor to get people off the roads? How about alleviating the need to get on the road at all? Most of the high-income workers in our county don’t actually work for business physically located in Santa Cruz county. They work in Silicon Valley, tele-commute to jobs in the Valley, or work in some kind of on-line capacity. Why don’t we make it easier for those workers, today and in the future, to stay in their homes and become distance-workers?
Santa Cruz county is already working with Sunesys on a plan to bring fiber-optic cable to the county. The proposed route of the cable is still in the planning stages, but I have heard that it will largely follow Soquel Avenue and Soquel Drive. That’s all very well and good – but why not install it down the rail corridor when the new path is being built? The more the merrier I say: install it along Soquel and the trail corridor, for superior bandwidth and an easier build-out to actually get to people’s doors.
And not just to the doors of people: how about to the doors of business? A few weeks ago there was a story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about Looker, a growing, successful Internet start-up company which is moving into the top floor of the Rittenhouse building in downtown Santa Cruz. They’re relocating from the Cruzio building, and the relocation is only possible because Cruzio is going to run a new fiber optic line a couple of blocks from their current building. Think of the possibilities for Aptos, and the rest of Santa Cruz county for that matter, if we had abundant fiber optic cable to start a whole new wave of domestic, high-tech start ups throughout the county?
Not everyone, of course, is going to be working in a high-tech startup company. How is everyone else going to get around the county in the future, if not on a train? In my previous article, I indicated how the current Metro system isn’t exactly a wild success: metro busses roll throughout the county, almost completely empty, most of the time.
But why is that? For me, personally, it’s because there are comparatively few of them. They don’t run frequently, and they don’t go where I want to go, when I want to go. Also, they’re slow. What could be done to improve Metro service?
They’ve probably done studies on that as well, but I can think of a few things. Currently, vehicular traffic is oriented around Highway 1 and Highway 17. Long term, why don’t we create a dedicated, high-speed bus lane, to enable bus rapid transit? This idea is growing in popularity in many cities which are growing, too. It’s comparatively economical, and provides a great example of what could be done to make bus service more attractive to residents and dramatically increase usage.
The future, though, holds even more possibilities. Ever heard of Uber? Check it out. On-demand ride sharing services like Uber can help alleviate congestion and lessen the need for people to own their own vehicles. Autonomous cars? Smart highways? As we go forward into the future, there are many possibilities for personal transportation that will make train systems such as are currently being contemplated for Santa Cruz effectively obsolete. Trains will probably be used in the future for inter-city transport, for example from San Jose to Los Angeles, and other systems such as Uber, bus rapid transit, autonomous vehicles and the like will get travelers “the last mile” which is usually the hardest piece of the puzzle to solve.
The Santa Cruz rail corridor represents a huge, untapped resource for Santa Cruz county. Making smart choices about its future will be a lasting benefit for our community, for our children, and our children’s children. Let’s not get distracted by shiny objects like a train system we can’t afford and will likely be outmoded before it is even built, which probably won’t ever happen. Let’s get to work on something practical which will pay dividends for our health, welfare, and lifestyle for decades to come. Let’s start working on alternatives today, instead of 12-18 months from now when the RTC finishes its latest feasibility study. We already waste enough time sitting in traffic. Let’s get moving on our future today.