By GAIL MCNULTY
Although Greenway believes using most of the 32-mile rail corridor that stretches from Watsonville to Davenport as a wide separated pathway makes sense, it’s only one aspect of our vision for the county. We also care about other meaningful transportation improvements including safe, connected routes for people biking and walking; serious improvements to the Metro bus system; and achievable solutions to address the gridlock nightmare.
While passenger rail is being strongly promoted, Greenway is working to shine light on important facts that show it may not be a wise transportation plan for our county:
• Santa Cruz County is highly unlikely to ever get funding from outside the county for passenger rail. We would compete, based on population and air quality, with more highly populated areas like the Bay Area and Southern California that have ongoing passenger rail needs. To even apply for these funds, voters would need to approve a new countywide sales tax — also very unlikely since Measure D barely passed.
• Even if passenger rail were funded, repeated studies have predicted few would ride a passenger train on the existing rail corridor because it’s not convenient to the places most people live and work.
• Those same studies show that passenger rail on the existing corridor would have little, if any, impact on the county’s gridlock problems.
• Around the nation, urban transit use is steadily declining, except in cities that have gone “all-in” to modernize their bus systems. Our Metro buses currently move three times the riders the train is predicted to move in its best case scenario. The millions of dollars being spent to repair tracks that may never be used for passenger rail could be more wisely redirected toward new eco-friendly buses and other Metro improvements.
• On June 14, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) signed a 10-year contract with Progressive Rail, a Minnesota-based freight rail company with no passenger rail experience.
The RTC could have crafted an agreement for a freight rail operator to deliver goods to the four existing customers in Watsonville. Instead, it negotiated and signed an agreement that gives extraordinary control over our corridor to Progressive Rail for 10 years, almost certainly dramatically limiting our options just months before a study commissioned to determine the best use of the corridor is released.
Measure D ad campaigns promised to “Get Santa Cruz County Moving” and Greenway hopes to do just that. Everyone deserves equal access to the incredible beauty and opportunities our county has to offer. Let’s work together to curb highway gridlock by asking the RTC to focus on realistic, achievable plans.
State programs can help fund gridlock alleviating improvements such as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes designed to get buses, carpools, and permitted work vehicles out of traffic. Santa Cruz County could likely get funding for transit-oriented highway improvement measures of this nature. However, the emphasis the RTC is currently putting on passenger rail plans may impede more effective efforts to alleviate gridlock.
What’s the most effective plan for our rail corridor in the near future? In addition to providing a safe and beautiful cross-county pathway, a greenway prioritized for bicycles, pedestrians and other types of active transportation could potentially accommodate small-scale transit options like electric minibuses. Unlike trains, minibuses could exit the corridor to get riders closer to their destinations.
We are in the midst of a global transportation revolution. Within a decade travel options will be vastly different then they are today. Our planning should include creative thinking about what a healthy transportation future will look like. Railbanking the sections of the corridor that are not currently needed for freight rail could protect the option of passenger rail in case it makes sense sometime in future while allowing the route to be used for active transportation and small-scale transit soon.
Greenway commends the City of Watsonville for being the first municipality in the county to embrace a Vision Zero strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. We understand that the community wants and needs safe routes to schools, better transit options, and serious efforts to alleviate Highway 1 gridlock.
Imagine being able carpool, drive your work vehicle, or ride a bus in a faster lane rather than sitting in gridlock. Would you enjoy the healthy freedom of cycling and walking without worrying about distracted drivers?
We want to hear from you! Add your voice to the conversation about the transportation solutions people in our county truly need and want and how today’s choices will affect tomorrow’s generations.
Visit our website at sccgreenway.org, call us at 824-4563, or email [email protected] to share your thoughts and learn more about Greenway.
Gail McNulty is executive director of Santa Cruz County Greenway. Her opinions are her own and not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.