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Santa Cruz RTC Sets Sights on 22-Mile Electric Rail Plan

In an 11-1 vote Thursday, commissioners with the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission approved an early-phase analysis of a 22-mile electric passenger rail system connecting north and south county.

An electric passenger train in motion.
(TNS) — Despite some light turbulence, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission stayed on track this week with its pursuit of an early-phase analysis for a 22-mile electric passenger rail system connecting North and South County.

The commission, by way of a 11-1 vote Thursday, approved a staff recommendation to pursue a contract with HDR Engineering Inc. to aid in developing a project concept report for the much-discussed public transportation project. Commissioner Randy Johnson was the sole vote against the move.

According to the staff summary, the primary purpose of the concept report is to solicit extensive community input and develop early engineering studies in hopes of establishing a stable project definition for subsequent tasks.

Though the report is expected to be completed within 24 months, the commission approved funding for its first year only by allocating $3.8 million of its 2016 Measure D funds to the effort. Staff underscored that this money would come from Measure D's rail corridor category specifically — getting 8% of funds generated from the 30-year sales tax — and would not take funding away from other areas.

However, staff estimated the total cost of the concept report will be about $7.7 million and the agency does not have enough local funding to meet that figure. Instead, it plans to pursue competitive grants to fill the gap for the remaining year and beyond.

While the proposal was approved through near unanimity, many commissioners, including those who voted to proceed, shared concerns about the future.

Alternate Commissioner Robert Quinn said he believes it's clear that the public wants rail included in future planning and he endorsed the proposal, but said it read as a "wish list."

"The risk category ... seems pretty lightly weighted in the deliverables," Quinn said, "and I'm just worried that we're pursuing rail at any cost."

Senior Transportation Engineer Sarah Christensen said that the scope of work for the study is intentionally robust so potential risks could be identified and addressed early.

"The approach that staff is proposing to take is to identify those delivery risks to the project early, study them and bring the information forward and do the heavy lifting early," Christensen said.

Johnson, the lone "no" vote, was generally skeptical of passenger rail as a viable public transit option, citing ridership difficulties in neighboring regions.

"I just don't see a bright future for rail, but apparently other people do," Johnson said. "Show me why before we start spending incrementally over here, over here and over here."

In response to Johnson's comments, Executive Director Guy Preston acknowledged the ridership concerns from neighboring rail authorities, but suggested the worst-case scenarios were receiving too much attention and that state and federal agencies haven't given up on rail.

"There are members of the public that look at this and say ... 'Are we trying to build too much?' " said Preston. "I don't know yet. We have to look at the performance metrics that people want to see —to attract the ridership to understand the land development issues —and build a system that would be useful and not detrimental to our community."

Though some commissioners voiced more long-term skepticism than others, nearly all embraced Preston's conclusion that this step was necessary to see what's next.

"As somebody who's generally a strong supporter of rail, it's possible I'm going to be persuaded at some point in this process not to spend that next $20 million or something," said Commissioner Mike Rotkin. "But at this point, I think we owe it to the public to proceed with the process we have now."

Other action

  • The commission unanimously approved a $287,885 bid to construct the Pajaro River Bridge Rehabilitation Project, which includes girder and center steel bridge repairs. It previously rejected a high bid in May and advertised a scaled-down version of the project to meet financial limitations.

  • Commissioners also voted, without objection, to make Koenig chair and Kristen Brown vice chair for the agency's coming term. It also honored outgoing Commissioners Jacques Bertrand, Greg Caput, Ryan Coonerty, Alternate Lowell Hurst and retiring Caltrans Ex Officio Tim Gubbins.

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