Santa Cruz Sentinel: RTC staff’s spending priority is rail
WATSONVILLE — P. J. Mecozzi, president of Del Mar Foods, which employs nearly 500 people at peak season and ships via rail, sees rail service as important to South County.
Nancy Bilicich, longtime Pajaro Valley school administrator, thinks the top priority should be widening Highway 1 to three lanes in Watsonville to match what’s been done in Santa Cruz.
Those competing interests are what face the 12-member Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which will hear the staff recommendation for spending through 2035 at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Watsonville Civic Center, 275 Main St.
The staff recommends: Rail, passenger, tourist and freight service estimated to cost $635 million, Highway 1 auxiliary lanes, ramp meters and buses on shoulders, estimated to cost $264 million, and Soquel Avenue/Drive/Freedom Boulevard intersection improvements and bike lanes, $51 million.
Greenway Santa Cruz County, which has been advocating railbanking and using the 32-mile rail corridor for a multi-purpose trail, lobbied to have this option included in the RTC corridor study but staff recommend a bike and pedestrian trail alongside the rail line, estimated to cost $283 million.
The so-called “preferred scenario” is based on Scenario B, one of four analyzed by consultants Kimley Horn, with the addition of Highway 1 auxiliary lanes and freight service and the deletion of intersection upgrades for Mission Street and more frequent buses on Soquel Avenue, Soquel Drive and Freedom Boulevard.
Whatever plan is adopted — that’s expected on Dec. 6 — would cover spending for transportation improvements through 2035, leveraging funding from the Measure D sales tax, which is expected to generate $17 million a year.
The passenger rail service between Santa Cruz and Watsonville is projected to serve 3,500 people a day, taking their cars off Highway 1, the most heavily trafficked road in Santa Cruz County, driven by 100,000 daily.
The recommended scenario would not bring carpool lanes or more frequent bus service to Highway 1 until after the year 2035, according to the staff report, which acknowledged congestion on Highway 1 greatly impacts Watsonville residents working in Santa Cruz, with their drive home taking three times longer during the peak evening commute.
Though the transportation recommendations make the needs of Watsonville a priority, the community is split. Even the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture board hasn’t reached agreement on the issue.
“Watsonville residents, what they want is the road,” said Bilicich, who oversees Watsonville/Aptos/SantaCruz Adult Education and is wrapping up her term on the Watsonville City Council. “I support the train. That’s another option for people but the road has to be No. 1.”
Where Highway 1 was widened to three lanes in Santa Cruz, the congestion eases.
“It’s great,” said Bilicich. “That’s what we want down here too.”
Tom Broz, who owns an organic you-pick farm in Watsonville and is Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau president, said he worries the spending plan overlooks roads in unincorporated areas vital to keep agriculture a major economic driver.
“They’re really in poor condition,” he said. “We have to worry about safety.”
Workers are moving heavy equipment on rural roads that are popular with cyclists and used by school buses and agri-tourists, he pointed out, with farmers shipping highly perishable products nationwide.
Rail cars gone
Progressive Rail began operating the line in mid-August, taking over from Iowa Pacific, which encountered financial problems and had idled hundreds of tank cars for a year and a half on the tracks in Watsonville without paying the RTC storage fees.
“The tank cars were all cleared out within the last three weeks,” said Mecozzi, whose company ships via rail in Watsonville. “We have full use of the line.”
As for future passenger service for commuters, he said, “I’m sure there will be enough time to determine the feasibility and value to the community.”
The RTC staff report notes state funding for transit capital projects “is on an upward trend,” making this a propitious time to invest in rail.
Mark Mesiti-Miller, board chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail, agrees.
“Santa Cruz County has received the attention of state transportation planners,” he said when the $120 billion state rail plan in mid-October included $1.5 billion to the Central Coast for three capital projects including connecting Santa Cruz and Monterey to the state rail network.
RTC members include county supervisors John Leopold, who is chairman, Greg Caput, Ryan Coonerty, Zach Friend, Bruce McPherson, city council members Jacques Bertrand of Capitola, Sandy Brown of Santa Cruz, Randy Johnson of Scotts Valley and Trina Coffman-Gomez of Watsonville; and Metro board members Ed Bottorff, Cynthia Chase and Mike Rotkin.
Rail corridor: $635 million
Passenger rail service from Santa Cruz to Pajaro, forecasted to serve 3,500 people per day, includes tourist excursions from Santa Cruz to Davenport and freight service: $340 million.
Bike and walking trail on rail right-of-way forecasted to serve 7,000 cyclists and 3,500 pedestrians per day, $283 million.
Bus connections to rail: $12 million.
Highway 1: $264 million
Three auxiliary lanes in addition to three lanes funded by Measure D, benefit 100,000 people per day: $142 million
On-ramp meters: $113 million
Buses on shoulders from Morrissey Blvd to San Andreas Road: $9 million.
Soquel Ave/Drive/Freedom Blvd: $51 million
Safer intersections for people on bikes and on foot, signals where feasible: $31 million.
Protected bike lanes: $20 million.
(Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/13/18)