To: The Commissioners of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC)
On May 6, 2021 the RTC Commissioners will once again be voting on the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis and Rail Network Integration Study (TCAA/RNIS) Business plan.
That Business Plan deserves your approval.
Santa Cruz County has a traffic problem, a large traffic problem. Most residents and businesses in Santa Cruz County are concentrated in a long, narrow coastal plain between Watsonville at the south end and Santa Cruz at the north.
The principal arteries of transportation are two highways: Highways 1 and 17. Both are aging and designed for an era when Santa Cruz County was more rural. Both congest and clog daily.
Caltrans has widened parts of Highway 1 with almost no long-term benefit. And there’s little chance that the infamous “fishook” or the obsolete on/off ramps (such as Soquel near Dominican) will be remedied.
Today, even in the era of Covid-19 and work-at-home, there is a daily tide of commuter traffic. In the morning much of that tide flows north on Highway 1 from Watsonville to Santa Cruz. Much of that traffic continues over Highway 17 to Silicon Valley. In the evening that tide reverses. Long delays occur every day as thousands of automobiles stop, creep, and stop again.
We have a system of smaller roadways, such as Soquel Drive. But they are mere capillaries.
And yet, right in front of us is a golden resource – The “Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line” (SCBRL), an old rail line that runs from a junction with the Union Pacific (and future Caltrain) line in Watsonville, north through Santa Cruz and on to Davenport. These still functioning tracks run close to the Monterey Bay shoreline and roughly parallel to Highway 1.
That line was purchased by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) with funds from the State of California.
The funds used to acquire that line came with a non-negotiable obligation imposed by California Proposition 116 and subsequent legislation.
That obligation requires that the SCBRL be used for passenger rail transit.
The California Transportation Commission (CTC) stated this requirement succinctly in a letter to the RTC, dated May 15, 2000.
Section 99613(a)(1) of Proposition 116 is not broadly constructed to allow rail right of way acquisition for other than rail purposes.
Using the SCBRL for anything that does not include passenger rail transit would likely mean that the RTC would have to refund the acquisition money and be dragged into protracted litigation with stakeholders and third parties.
Should such litigation arise it is likely that the RTC would be enjoined from using the SCBRL for any other use, particularly one that could impair the SCBRL as a passenger rail facility.
The RTC has, over the last decade, performed a sequence of studies leading to a Business Plan to deploy passenger rail on the SCBRL.
That plan creates a framework to construct a quiet, non-polluting, rail system that would likely off-load a significant part of the traffic on Highway 1.
On May 6 that Business Plan will be on the RTC agenda for a vote by the commissioners.
That Business Plan should be accepted.
Santa Cruz County has a long history of rail transit. Santa Cruz once had a system of street cars; the imprint of which can still be seen in the triangular intersections along Soquel Avenue.
And the county once had three rail lines — (1) the South Pacific Coast Railroad line, now drowned under Lexington Reservoir, roughly paralleling Highway 17 to Los Gatos, on which once ran the famed “Suntan Special”; (2) a line up to Swanton and beyond; and finally (3) a line down to Watsonville with its connection to the Union Pacific Mainline that now carries Amtrak and may eventually carry Caltrain (with its connections to BART.)
Many cities and counties have learned the lesson that highways are not enough.
Cities such as Los Angeles and counties such as Sonoma and Marin are even now resurrecting and reviving their long overlooked or abandoned rail infrastructure.
Santa Cruz County ought to be among them.
Bicycles and Multiple Use
Santa Cruz has long prided itself in forward-looking, environmentally friendly policies and projects.
We have a strong community of people who use alternative means of transportation, most particularly bicycles.
Bicycles are great. They have proven effective in cities on the great flat coastal plains of Northern Europe and Eastern China. However, that success is almost universally accompanied by a system of local (and regional) rail transport that carries people longer distances; or when weather is less than opportune; or when people are aged, tired, or have to go shopping or deal with children.
Bicycles are an adjunct to a regional transportation system; bicycles are not such a system in themselves.
The Business Plan to be voted upon envisions that the SCBRL will be put to multiple uses. In addition to carrying rail traffic, the line will encompass paths for both riding and walking. In some places those latter uses will have to diverge from the rail due to physical constraints, but for the most part they will run alongside one another, not unlike the recently opened sections of the City of Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail Project.
Risks and Opportunities
The RTC studies include measures of need and projections of ridership. The traffic jams on Highway 1 underscore our need for an alternative to the automobile.
Projects such as this are not inexpensive, and there are risks. However the RTC studies have already examined these. We are not flying into this blind.
We are at a critical juncture in a rare moment of opportunity: Federal and State money is starting to flow into infrastructure projects, such as the one in the RTC’s Business Plan.
If we miss this moment, if we do not accept this Business Plan, we may find that we have lost the opportunity to reduce our county’s transportation woes.
And if we fail to seize the opportunity we may find ourselves in a tightening bind as the State of California becomes more impatient that we put the $17 million of Proposition 116 funds to their intended use.
We have the need, we have the resources, the time is right. We merely lack an affirmative vote by the RTC to accept the proposed business plan.
Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California