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April 19, 2021

Split vote derails RTC’s Rail-Trail plans

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—In a 6-6 vote, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) on Thursday narrowly rejected a business plan for the design, construction and operation of a passenger rail line along the 32-mile stretch from Davenport to Pajaro, which could mean, at least for now, that the project will not move forward.

The commission will meet again in May, during which members will discuss whether the RTC will have to pay back a $100,000 loan from Caltrans that helped pay for the business plan, says RTC spokeswoman Shannon Munz.

Plans for a rail line, estimated between $465 million and $478 million, have deeply divided the county. Advocates envision a convenient, environmentally friendly transportation alternative, while opponents see an unsightly, expensive untenable behemoth incompatible with Santa Cruz County that is unlikely to reduce traffic congestion.

The commissioners also rejected a separate motion to move forward with a $17.1 million environmental review.

The split vote came after four hours of discussion by commissioners and the public, many of whom expressed concern about the portion of the project that is still unfunded.

The plan called for construction to commence around 2030, with rail service to begin five years later.

According to the plan, the project is short $189 million for construction costs and $125 million to run the rail system over the next two decades.

RTC Executive Director Guy Preston estimated that repairing the trestle running above Capitola would cost at least $20 million.

The report also lists numerous potential state and federal funding sources, but none of those are certain.

Commissioner Mike Rotkin said he wants to see more study about possible funding mechanisms before he approves a business plan.

Commissioner Manu Koenig, also a Santa Cruz County supervisor who made opposition to the rail line a key portion of his successful campaign to unseat incumbent John Leopold in November, said he was pleased with the results.

“The takeaway was that the commission decided to stop spending money on rail studies,” Koenig said.

Koenig favors a plan that would replace the tracks with a bike-pedestrian trail.

“We obviously don’t have all that money locally to fund it,” Koenig said. “Effectively, we’re not going to spend anymore money on the train until such time as there is a vote.”

Koenig added that the split vote is a signal that the commissioners are not likely to approve the passenger rail.

The 66-page business plan gave a 25-year outlook for the rail plan, including costs, which group had oversight and how much ridership was predicted once completed.

The commission in February voted to accept the Transit Corridor Analysis and Rail Network Integration Study, which gave an outline of how the train system might work.

Public comment was split among those who support a rail system and those who want a trail.

“I’m excited about this plan, and the opportunity it gives us to build something better for this community,” said Faina Segal.

Buzz Anderson said that the county should instead be putting money into the transportation systems already in place in Santa Cruz County. 

“We as a community should be investing in making our system work well rather than putting money into this,” he said.

Commissioner Jacques Bertrand called the project infeasible, due largely to the cost.

“It gets back to affordability,” he said. 

Commissioner Eduardo Montesino pointed out that nobody from South County made any public comment, and that a train system would benefit the people who live there and make the daily 15-mile commute north.

Commissioner Lowel Hurst agreed.

“We have a responsibility to be fiscally prudent and spend our money on projects that are feasible,” he said.

Updated April 6, 11am: This story was updated to clarify what the commission might consider in May, based on new information from the RTC spokeswoman.

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