Why We Need to Have a Good Fight About Trains


The CA Highspeed Rail Act of 2008 did more than just approve a state-wide train, it allocated $1B in funding for local rail projects and gave the green light to county transportation agencies to pursue rail as well. Now local rail is the latest battleground for whether train projects make sense in the 21st Century.

In Santa Cruz County, Bud Colligan, a local venture capitalist and philanthropist, along with Miles Reiter, chairman of multi-national berry distributer Driscolls, have newly called the county’s rail project into question. The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission purchased the branch rail line in 2012 and has developed the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Trail Master Plan with passenger rail as a foregone conclusion.

In an op-ed earlier this month community leaders Reiter and Colligan point out that the dream of local-rail service is most likely implausible given the land and budget limitations of the project.

One slide in particular makes the business men’s argument clear, a train/trail combination will have a lower people moving capacity than a wider trail, take longer, and have tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden costs.

A video by a Santa Cruz bike advocate makes this same argument highly visual. Much of the cost from building a train comes from having to duplicate all of the bridges along the path to accommodate the bike and pedestrian trail. The implicit argument being, “doesn’t it make way more sense to use the trestles for a bike and pedestrian only project?”

The entrenched community in favor of building a train fired back via Amelia Conlen, Director of Bike Santa Cruz County in an op ed last Sunday:

The basic argument Amelia encapsulates is the branch rail line was purchased with the help of state and federal grants with the requirement of preserving rail. Therefore, to build a trail without rail will be legally complicated and require loan repayment. Opponents respond by saying that the time lost dealing with these legalities and repaying the $10-15 million dwarfs the time and at least $176 million required to build out local rail.

In looking at the logic used on both sides of the argument, there is one glaring hole that the pro-train side has yet to significantly address, the pace of technology. Yes the “Rail Trail Master Plan” mentions that the possible advent of self-driving cars could create new opportunities, but it does not estimate the potential impact on train ridership this technology would have. If self-driving, electric, on-demand cars become a wide-spread reality in the next 3-10 years, as Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicts, then trains will once again face the stiff competition that kept them from becoming dominant in the US to begin with. Transportation that is point-to-point, personalized, fast, and highly convenient could drastically reduce train ridership, requiring even greater public subsidies to offset decreased usage.

Many rail proponents have also questioned the need to have this debate. After all, the plans are (mostly) written and the studies completed, why not proceed with all due haste to solve our traffic problem? The reality is that this is a massive investment in public time and money. Moreover, it cuts to the heart of the role of government, complete with public works, unions, and millennial voters. Whatever the outcome, this is a debate that is well worth having. What happens in Santa Cruz will have implications for other local projects as well as CA Highspeed Rail.

Weigh in on Civinomics and send your feedback directly to the SCCRTC by July 31st:



Shall the SCCRTC stop plans for passenger rail service along the Sanctuary Trail in favor of an expedited bike path?

A YES vote on this initiative would instruct the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) to immediately halt all expenditures on implementing rail and instead pursue construction of a bike and pedestrian only path. Rail is, unfortunately, expensive, loud and antiquated. Bike and pedestrian commuting is the sustainable transportation that our County needs and our sanctuary trail can accommodate.

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