When will Santa Cruz County get a train?
By Will Mayall
Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 07/08/17
If trains are a passion or civil engineering your profession, then you may want to see a train in Santa Cruz County no matter what the facts. On the other hand, for those of us that think trains are a form of transportation not a religion and concrete retaining walls aren’t cool, read on.
Although the unused rail corridor in Santa Cruz County has the potential for so much more than transportation, the discussion is often reduced to train vs. trail. This is because the organization that owns the corridor is the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC).
The transportation in their name says it all: they have a singular focus on transportation. I’d prefer to discuss all the potential benefits of the rail corridor including health, safety, community, and even aesthetics but instead I’ll focus on transportation.
First, the trail. There will be a trail. The voters funded it via Measure D. The current plan is a narrow, expensive, limited trail alongside the unused tracks with a fence down the middle that detours onto unsafe busy streets at some critical locations. It’s better than nothing. Instead, Greenway proposes a wider, less costly trail that removes fewer heritage trees and can be built more quickly by removing the tracks. The active transportation provided by a greenway is inexpensive (walking and biking). It scales without spending more as it becomes increasingly popular and connected.
Now for the train. There will not be a train. This is not a guess. This is based on abundant data from the RTC’s own studies and similar corridors in other communities. Here are the reasons.
First, the RTC’s own 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study recommends diesel trains pulling cars on the single track. If you’ve never heard of the Feasibility Study, it’s because the findings were not to the RTC’s liking so it doesn’t want to discuss it.
Second, in addition to the study, are you ready for sticker shock? Proponents of a train talk about using electric light rail and ignore the diesel train recommendation of the study. Ready? Try at least $500M to build an electric light rail system. That’s a conservative estimate based on existing light rail systems.
Third, it’s unlikely the future holds some cheap cool rail-based technology. Train technology chugs ahead slowly. Meanwhile, every major vehicle company is creating autonomous vehicles that will quickly deliver us door-to-door and be available through ride-sharing services. Which works better? Getting to and from trains that run on a schedule or vehicles that arrive on command and take you door-to-door via the most efficient route?
One more thing. Measure D provides no money for a train. None. The voters of Santa Cruz County have not yet voted to fund a train. Period.
Where’s the RTC’s plan for a train? What, when, and how much? It’s long overdue. Despite all their studies, they still don’t have the answers and yet that is their job.
Instead of continuing with the fantasy of a train, let us spend our money wisely by pulling the tracks and creating a world-class trail (greenway) that Santa Cruz County needs, deserves, and will appreciate. Imagine the reality of a trail that thousands of people can use, for free, to walk, jog, ride, and mingle all along the Santa Cruz County coast.
Will Mayall lives in Santa Cruz.