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May 17, 2021

Watsonville City Council sets special meeting for rail trail business plan

WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council at the tail end of its Tuesday night meeting approved plans to reconvene today to discuss a resolution in support of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission’s (RTC) business plan for construction and operation of a passenger rail line along the 32-mile stretch from Davenport to Pajaro.

The virtual meeting is set for 4:30pm.

The resolution, if approved, will urge the RTC to accept the business plan that failed to pass in the agency’s early April meeting after a tied vote from 12 commissioners. The RTC members include various city council members from the county’s four cities, county supervisors and members of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District’s board.

The RTC’s plans for passenger rail, estimated between $465 million and $478 million, have deeply divided Santa Cruz County. Advocates envision a convenient, environmentally friendly transportation alternative. Opponents see an unsightly, expensive untenable behemoth incompatible with the county that is unlikely to reduce Highway 1 traffic congestion.

The move came at the end of the City Council’s regular bi-monthly virtual meeting after a verbal kerfuffle between Mayor Jimmy Dutra and Councilmen Aurelio Gonzalez and Lowell Hurst.

Gonzalez is the chair of the RTC and Hurst is an alternate member.

Hurst tried to add the resolution as an emergency item to Tuesday night’s meeting, but that attempt failed.

Then, Gonzalez said Dutra declined to use his power as mayor to add the resolution to the agenda, but Dutra said that he could not add the item because it came in after the agenda was set on Tuesday.

“There is a process,” Dutra said. “I’m trying to be transparent to the community. If there is something that needs to go onto the agenda, it needs to be done by the rules.”

Councilman Eduardo Montesino, also a member of the RTC, ultimately suggested scheduling a special meeting for the item.

It passed unanimously, though both Dutra and Councilwoman Ari Parker said they might not make the meeting because of prior engagements.

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

If the Watsonville City Council does indeed show support for the RTC’s business plan, it would follow in the footsteps of the Santa Cruz City Council, which on Tuesday passed a resolution in favor of passenger rail.

It is not clear what, if anything, the resolutions mean for the upcoming May 6 RTC meeting.

The RTC will hear a report on the business plan’s grant requirements regarding whether it will have to pay back a $100,000 loan from Caltrans that helped pay for the plan, RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz said. But, she added, the item is purely informational and it will not require a vote from the commission.

A commissioner, however, could ask the RTC to reconsider its vote from the early-April meeting at a future meeting, Munz said. In order for the business plan to return to the RTC, it would need a majority of commissioners to support the item.

Brian Peoples, of Trail Now, a major supporter of a trail-only option for the corridor, in an email to media and county leaders called the upcoming Watsonville City Council special meeting “political theater” and said that he has advised his organization’s supporters to not show up.

“The Santa Cruz County (RTC) has already voted not to move forward with a passenger train and the continued public debate is preventing our community from moving forward with real transportation solutions,” he said.

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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