Local
4:48 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

How Could Passenger Rail in Santa Cruz County Serve You

The Santa Cruz Branch Line is 32 miles of freight rail between Davenport and Watsonville.
The Santa Cruz Branch Line is 32 miles of freight rail between Davenport and Watsonville.
Credit Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

Talk of bringing passenger rail to Santa Cruz County goes back decades.  But it seems the idea is finally at the point where the talk may turn into reality. 

About two years ago, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) purchased the Santa Cruz Rail Line. It’s a 32 mile freight line that runs from Davenport to Watsonville. 

Now the RTC is in the middle of a feasibility study.  And there’s just a few more days take a survey on how a rail line could best serve you.

In an interview, George Dondero (GD), Executive Director of the Santa Cruz County RTC, spoke about the potential of using the line for passenger rail.

GD: The line between Santa Cruz and Davenport is very scenic, and we think it has great potential from that aspect, but in terms of carrying regular passenger loads, probably not enough people living up there to support regular passenger service. So the focus is really between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and beyond.

KA: Beyond because…

GD: Because the line does connect with the Union Pacific mainline at Pajaro Junction, which is just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville.  And Monterey County has been working on extending the commuter service southward from Gilroy down into Salinas. Also there’s been an effort to institute a new day train from Los Angeles to San Francisco that would also work on that rail line.  So we would have the opportunity to connect with that service at Pajaro Junction.

So now that gives people an opportunity not just for travel within the county, but also north and south into the bay area and beyond or down to Los Angeles and points in between.

KA: Right now the commission is doing a feasibility study. What is that feasibility study looking at?

GD: It’s looking at number one what would the community like to see.  What kind of service would people be likely to use, if they were to use it.  How many people might use it.  Where they might be going, and of course, we’re looking at potential locations for where station stops might be.  That kind of thing.

KA: As part of the study, you’re having the consultant develop a few different scenarios, if it’s found to be feasible...

GD: I like to say anything is feasible if you have enough money and enough time, so the question is what’s feasible in the short term, say the next five years, versus some medium term say 10 to 15 years, versus the longer term.  If we determine that we just don’t have the money right now then we have to focus on developing the funding.  If we have enough to do something, it might be a very modest kind of service that maybe is not the end all be all that people would be looking for, but it would get us started and get us a toehold.  But that’s how rail programs develop.

KA: When you walk about ridership and passengers, who do you envision those people being?

GD: Well that’s another thing things we’re trying to determine, but we certainly identified some major groups.  First one that many people think of is commuters.  Lots of people commute from Watsonville into Santa Cruz and even beyond.  Lots of people commute to the University, that work there.  And there are some opportunities on the west side of Santa Cruz, locations where we could locate a rail stop, for example, where a bus could come down from the Univeristy and meet the train.  So that would get people across town without having to thread their way across Mission Street and through the fishhook and everything that goes on there.  I mean those are some pretty narly traffic situations that people have to go to just to get to work. So that’s a group.

Visitors.  Certainly tourism and agriculture are the main industries in this county.  Many people will tell you that in the summer time, traveling across county is painful at best on main warm weekends when we have a heavy visitor load.  Just for example, somebody is staying for the weekend or for the week in Capitola or Santa Cruz, and let’s say there’s a strawberry festival in Watsonville.  Rather than hopping in their car, they might be able to hop on the train and leave a little more space out there on the highway for people who need to get to work or need to get to the grocery store.  So we think there’s potential or that.

KA: When you think about the improvements that the line will need and the development to build out a (passenger) rail line, where does the money come from?

GD: I think we will be looking to a future sales tax measure, if the commission decides to offer it to voters, and of course if the voters will support it.  But that money alone will probably not be sufficient, but it will be used the leverage federal money.  There are federal programs for new starts and small start programs for rail specifically, that do not compete with highway money.  And that’s probably one place we’d be looking to go.

We also have a private operator who although they don’t own the line, they have a long term interest in prospering here, and there may be opportunities for them to invest in the line as well.

George Dondero is Executive Director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

You can give your input on the potential passenger rail line through an online survey.  The survey closes at midnight Sunday, August 3rd. 

The RTC is also working on a trail to go along the rail line.  You can learn more about that here.