Planning for Passenger Rail in Santa Cruz

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Last Thursday the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission presented the results of a feasibility study evaluating the potential for passenger rail service along the now publicly owned rail line. The study looked at a range of metrics for evaluating seven separate service scenarios, including up front capital costs, annual upkeep and maintenance costs, expected ridership, the number of stations and total operational distance, headway and travel times, and even the type of train engine to be purchased. The results were published earlier in the week and were later presented at two community workshops in both Watsonville and Live Oak. To view the full report click here.

The goals of passenger rail service are threefold: provide accessible, sustainable, and competitive transportation options that could reduce traffic in other areas of the County; facilitate future economic development that could be centered along a key transit corridor; and create a regional network that would eventually connect our system to other systems within the state, such as High Speed Rail and even the expanded Caltrain service. However, of overarching concern is the financial viability of the project. According to the study the project must be cost effective, financially feasible, and must have secure, long term funding availability in order to justify the investment.

Under the seven scenarios that were evaluated in the study, costs vary widely. Up front capital costs could be as low as $31.5 million, should the RTC partner with Iowa Pacific to lease part of the operations and maintenance budget allowing for freight trains to utilize the track, but could also be as high as $176 million for the most extensive service scenario. Annual operations and maintenance costs could be as low as $3.7 million, or as high as $14 million. Ridership estimates vary depending on the total scope of service area (e.g. extending fully to Davenport in the North and Watsonville in the South), but initial estimates are in the range of 1,100 to 5,000 daily riders. Peak ridership in 2035 under the best scenario would be 6,800 people, or roughly 2.5 percent of the County population. The fare recovery rate – that is the amount of costs that could be recovered through fares alone – is not expected to exceed 20 percent of the total operations costs, meaning that any service scenario would be heavily dependent consistent public subsidy. Detailed below are the seven service scenarios outlined in the RTC report.

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Of particular concern for most of the community leaders present at the Watsonville workshop was that the service area extend into Watsonville. And while this would be require a phased in build out, and would be less cost effective because it would support fewer stations per unit of distance, this connection is vital for providing a commuter alternative to Highway 1, and for connecting to other systems such as High Speed Rail and Amtrak. Scenarios B, E, and S do not provide for initial connections to Watsonville under the feasibility study, and are therefore unlikely to be considered viable options for winning public support from South County leaders.

In the interest of time we will not be curating a vote on each individual scenario, but will instead frame the following input opportunities as questions of practicability. Based on the preliminary estimations for cost and ridership, should Santa Cruz County continue to pursue passenger rail service along the existing rail corridor? Should the County RTC partner with Iowa Pacific to run freight along the tracks during non passenger times to reduce costs? Should the service extend to Watsonville despite the added costs so as to connect to regional systems and provide an alternative to highway 1 commuters? Vote and comment below.

Should Santa Cruz County Continue to Pursue Passenger Rail Service?
This initiative generally supports the idea that the Regional Transportation Commission should continue to explore the feasibility of passenger rail service within Santa Cruz County based upon the initial findings of the first feasibility study. Any service scenario would at minimum a $50 million dollar investment, not including operations and maintenance costs. Peak ridership under the best case scenario in 2035 is estimated to be 6,800 daily riders. Under the highest cost scenario, system development costs exceed $176 million.

Partner with Iowa Pacific to Run Freight in Santa Cruz
This initiative supports the concept of running freight trains along the existing rail line in conjunction with passenger rail service. However, freight trains would not run at the same time as passenger trains. This does require additional infrastructure in the form of rail switches, and heavier train cars, but the initial construction costs, as well as the operations and maintenance costs would be split with Iowa Pacific.

Should Passenger Rail Service be Extended to Watsonville?

This initiative generally supports the idea that any passenger rail service considered for Santa Cruz County be extended to Watsonville, despite the added cost. This way the train could provide a viable commuter alternative for South County residents who currently utilize Highway 1 and the bus system. Additionally, this would allow for regional connections to High Speed Rail, Amtrak, and expanded Caltrain service. 4 of the 7 scenarios outlined in the RTC feasibility study would extend to Watsonville, and 1 would continue to Pajaro where it could connect to other systems. This would cost and additional $50 Million at minimum.



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