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August 18, 2022

Rail-trail study gets RTC nod

SANTA CRUZ—The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission on Thursday unanimously agreed to release a request for proposals (RFP) for an engineering study of the county’s rail line, the first step in what will be a multiple-year project to establish a passenger rail system.

The study, estimated to cost $17 million, will give the RTC a picture of what a light electric rail system would look like, including the number of stops and frequency of trips, as well as what it would take to get the 32-mile system of track, trestles and bridges ready.

It 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.

The study will cover the 22-mile stretch between Pajaro Junction in north Monterey County and Natural Bridges Drive in the City of Santa Cruz. 

The cost of the study would be paid in part from the competitive State Rail Assistance Program, although that funding will likely require a 20% local match, said RTC Senior Transportation Engineer Sarah Christensen.

The move is the first major step since the landslide defeat in June of Measure D, the initiative that would have signaled to the RTC to end plans to create a rail/trail system, and required the county instead to focus on a trail-only model.

Christensen said that the study will allow the organization to do much of the “heavy lifting” in advance of beginning the rail project.

“We really want to focus on this first step,” she said.

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

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.

Getting Capitola trestle operational is estimated to cost between $15 and $30 million, Christensen said. 

Several people addressed the commission, most of them speaking in favor of the RFP.

Sally Arnold said that the defeat of Measure D—which 79% of voters rejected—gave the clearest message yet that the time is right to move forward.

“We’re really pleased to see that the RTC staff have clearly been working hard on this over the summer,” she said.

But Brian Peoples of Trail Now—one of the organizations that supported Measure D—says that California Coastal Commission and California Transportation Commission have rules that would prohibit a new fixed-rail system along the Santa Cruz Coastal Corridor. Those organizations also restrict funding for such projects, Peoples says.

“These California policies clearly show that the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission will not be eligible to receive state funding for a new fixed rail system that travels along the Santa Cruz Coastal Corridor,” he said.

Peoples also rejects the notion that the Measure D results signal a local desire for a passenger rail system. Instead, he says, the county should explore a “transit and trail” solution.

“We need timely and cost-effective investment in building the Santa Cruz Coastal Trail, and this RFP is more delay in constructing the trail,” he said. 

Commissioner Mike Rotkin called the June 7 vote a “watershed moment” in the storied history of the controversial project.

“I am so excited about what your staff has brought us today,” he said. “I am so pleased about what we have in front of us.”

Commissioner Greg Caput agreed. 

“We’ve done 2-3 years of talking, and now we’re actually deciding,” he said. “The only way to go forward is to approve this proposal.”

Commissioner Manu Koenig, who had been an outspoken skeptic of plans for a rail system—and who publicly touted Measure D—doubled down on that doubt, but said he would vote to approve it because it was the will of his constituents. 

He added that he would be “overjoyed” if proven wrong.

“I want nothing more than to see carbon-free effective transport in this county,” he said. 

RTC staff is expected to present its recommendation from the RFP in the fall.

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