A man crosses the railroad tracks near the intersection of Walker and West Beach streets in Watsonville. —Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

SANTA CRUZ—The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission on Dec. 1 approved a contract with an engineering company that will conduct an initial study of a passenger rail line that could one day transport passengers along the breadth of the county.

The work by Omaha, Nebraska-based HDR Inc. is expected to take approximately two years. 

The initial early engineering phase of the work will include a look at infrastructure such as tracks, bridges and trestles, a projection of ridership and revenue forecasts and a study of potential operations plans on the rail between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

It will also include extensive community input, and give cost estimates for capital, operation and maintenance of the rail system.

The $3 million cost for the first phase of the work—called Task 1—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 more than $7.7 million and will include more comprehensive studies.

The RTC will look to competitive grants for the remainder of those funds. The commissioners will then amend the contract with HDR to include additional preliminary work once the funding is secured.

In 2021, the RTC identified electric passenger rail as the locally preferred alternative.

The issue has long been a hotbed of controversy for the county, with many people calling passenger rail a boondoggle that will cost the county hundreds of millions of dollars, and 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 on the track, even before a rail system can be considered.

The item passed 11-1, with Commissioner Randy Johnson voting no.

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 of which are facing declining ridership. He also pointed to Santa Cruz’s own METRO system, which is also having 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. 

Commissioner Andy Shiffrin acknowledged the initial phase of the rail project—as well as the future costs—will be expensive. But he pointed to Measure D, the June 2022 measure in which 70% of voters signaled strong support of keeping the rail line intact. 

“I don’t know whether ultimately 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 and I think this contract moves us along the way,” he said.

Commissioner Greg Caput, whose district includes parts of Watsonville, said that voting “no” on the item “is really not an option.”

“We’d basically be saying the voters didn’t know what they were voting on,” he said. “We really can’t do that. 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 would have to be addressed. This includes encroaching waves and sea level rise and conflicts where the rail crosses traffic, Preston said. 

It also faces uncertainty for its environmental impacts, as work along the bluffs above Manresa and Harkins Slough face scrutiny from state officials, he said.

“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. The vote before the board was merely to fund the study, not to approve the future rail project, he added.

“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 a handful of speakers from the public.

Sally Arnold said that communities can 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 said the Commission should start the process by asking the California Coastal Commission whether they would approve the passenger rail in the areas under 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 a little and ask, is it worth the $7 million commitment?”

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA. https://pajaronian.com/r-p-reporter-honored-by-csba/


  1. The fact that this is the first comment should tell the government that the general populace really isn’t interested in the rail system, and that it would be a waste of taxpayer money – whatever the source, local or federal.


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