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April 11-18, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Train, Train, Train

There's no way around it: trains are sexy. Sleek, stiff and gleaming, modern railroads are sufficiently erotic--that images of trains, primarily deco-period phallic locomotives, shooting into tunnels at steaming speeds have become universal cinematic devices. It's no wonder that many in the population--especially relatively privileged aggressive younger men--are always lobbying for more.

The lure of trains has captured many a local mind, as well, as shown by the county Regional Transportation Commission's determined work, year after year, despite endless setbacks, to buy the local Union Pacific tracks and run shiny new train cars on them.

And when the RTC's Transportation Funding Task Force (TFTF), led by Fred Keeley, voted recently on its favorite projects, members gave their highest vote to a rail trail project. Which, in turn, first involves the RTC successfully nabbing the tracks.

Obviously, when it comes to trains, local leaders and lobbyists deeply feel the love. The first letters to editors, several years ago, estimated the population within walking distance of a countywide passenger train line--and therefore potential ridership--at 60,000. By last year, that estimate had expanded to 80,000. And a recent Sentinel op-ed writer and rail proponent estimated one half of the county population--approximately 125,000 people--to live within 1 mile of the tracks, and thus serve as future riders. Love grows where my train trestle goes.

Add to that vision of gleaming cars gliding quietly through the greenery promises of less highway congestion, and plans for a tree-laden rail-trail alongside the tracks to accommodate pedestrians and eco-tourists, and the entire train-related picture as painted looks rosy indeed.

But wait, there's less! In what way? It's like this: real-world experience with local rail throughout the United States shows none of those pink rosaceous tones.

In fact, local rail projects built in lower-density towns and cities--ones built or grown primarily after the 1950s--have for the most part generated low ridership, brought no relief from highway congestion and generated vats of red ink. In some cases, rail projects have proven so expensive to run that local transit agencies have had to slash bus service to keep trains running, thus actually reducing transit ridership and increasing auto use.

That's not just a local pattern, either. Here's the Congressional Budget Office commenting on Amtrak: "By 1970, the year Amtrak was authorized, the number of intercity passenger-miles traveled by rail had plummeted to 6.2 billion from a high of 67 billion during World War II." And, it adds, "Since then, intercity rail travel has generally remained around 5 billion to 6 billion passenger-miles annually, and bus travel has stayed at about 25 billion."

In other words, train travel has declined by 91 percent since mid-century, buses have outstripped trains as the most popular mass transit vehicles by a factor of four, and as a result, every train system in the United States, from Amtrak to Conrail to local systems, need continuing subsidies--neither of which have proven necessary for either private bus service or for airline travel.

In fact, the only train systems that are doing at all well are those which connect major high-density cities more than 100 miles distant (too long for a comfortable drive) and less than 300 miles distant (too short a distance to justify flying). And even they need constant significant subsidy.

Could it be, though, that Santa Cruz may be unique in its willingness to accommodate fixed-rail transit? That it might just work here?

To answer that, Nuz took a look at those conditions under which local rail projects succeed, those under which they fail, and to what degree those might apply in Santa Cruz County--starting with whether a passenger train system could somewhat support itself, or at least provide enough congestion relief to make such support a minor issue.

So, in financing a local passenger rail system, the first step would be to buy the tracks. Approximate cost: $19 million. Given the advanced state of disrepair of segments of them, the RTC might end up paying the current owners less, but would then assume the cost of repairs. So it's around $19 million either way.

That, however, buys rickety tracks only usable by federal standards for minimal traffic at a maximum 10mph speeds. Ever wonder why the concrete-carrying trains lope along so slowly? That's why.

Running passenger service at the normative 25mph necessary to attract regular riders would demand major upgrades. Fred Keeley's TFTF estimates them at $23 million in local money, $24.5 million total. So the total cost of buying ourselves passenger-ready tracks is around $43.5 million.

With a county population of 250,000 and a somewhat normative U.S. adult-to-child ratio of 3 to 1--in other words, with an estimated 187,500 adult taxpayers--that's a cost per adult county resident of $232.

Now, in order for passengers to actually use the service, it has to include some desirable destination, or, in transit lingo, some significant hub. There is, luckily, one such hub: the Watsonville/Pajaro Rail Station. Problem: it's not connected to other lines. Cost of connecting it--namely, to CalTrain and coastal trail areas--according to TFTF, would be $10 million local, $15 million total. So we're now at $58.5 million.

Next comes the cost of starting up passenger service. Buying the cars. Setting schedules. Establishing at least minimal covered waiting stations. Parking facilities. TFTF shows two figures, depending on funding mix: $17 million and $19 million. Averaging that at $18 million, and adding it in, we're at $76.5 million.

And finally, since the rail-trail is a necessary factor to relieve pressure on other transit modes, we need to add in the $39 million ($24 million local) that the TFTF estimates it will cost to build the trail. We're now at $115 million. That's a cost of $613 per capita, $1,226 per family.

And that's without, as the TFTF draft report says in numerous footnotes, any cost-of-financing figures, such as interest, included. And without additional, annual costs of operation, which the RTC's 1998 Master Transportation Investment Study estimates by noting: "annual rail operating costs range from $14.3 ... to $18.6 million." Which, if added to startup costs over 30 years, comes to approximately $3,000 per county adult, $6,000 per county two-parent household. Regardless of gender or orientation.

Now of course some proponents assert that it won't really cost that because some of the funding will "come from the state" or "come from the federal government." But, of course, federal and state tax dollars do not "come from" governments any more than milk "comes from" Safeway (it comes, as we all know, from happy cows, which come from California).

Public funding, no matter who it's funneled through, comes from we the taxpayers. So, in fact, the approximate cost of establishing and maintaining county-length passenger rail service will be $6,000 per family.

Aren't public infrastructure costs, however, always relative? Sure they are. Repairing a bridge, or financing a parking garage, might well cost dearly but provide enough local edge against competing localities that the cost of spending the money is far less than the cost of not doing so.

So the real question is what the $6,000 per county family will buy--what level of congestion relief. And even more: what level or relief compared to the $156 million total that TFTF estimates it would cost to ramp up the countywide bus system to top-notch status, or the $360 million necessary to widen Highway 1 from Morrissey Boulevard to the San Andreas/Larkin Valley exit? Will the $115 million in train-related investments provide a relief proportional to its cost?

To find that answer, Nuz dug back into the RTC's 1998 Major Transportation Investment Study, looked up its congestion level baseline, and then looked at the alternative rail proposals. The results: rail from Watsonville to UCSC Campus, "No Reductions in Congestion vs. Baseline"; rail from Watsonville to Harvey West and Natural Bridges, "No Reductions in Congestion vs. Baseline," plus "Requires Bus Connection to UCSC"; rail from Watsonville to Harvey West, "No Reductions in Congestion vs. Baseline."

So: no congestion relief at all. In addition, "The [rail] strategies have potential environmental impacts, associated disruption, air quality, noise and visual effects along with biological resources ... the strategies have costs per new rider that are higher than 'new start' projects" and "the strategies are less flexible than the bus-oriented transit strategies."

And the report concludes: "As presently defined, the strategies are not financially feasible ... even with a half-cent sales tax."

And while later updates to the 1998 MTIS study show increases in transit ridership if trains are put in place, they show virtually no congestion relief, either.

Why is this? To find out, Nuz turned to a well-respected nationwide study of transit success finished in 2004 and published by the National Transportation Board, a research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. Here's what it says: "The rules of thumb on residential densities that are found to be transit-supportive are as follows: Basic bus services 7 dwelling units per acre. Premium bus services 15. Rail services 20 to 30."

In other words, Santa Cruz County, which 30 years ago limited virtually all residential land in the unincorporated areas to 8 units or less per acre, eliminated itself as a future accommodator or either high-quality bus service or rail. There are simply not enough nearby residents, and therefore not enough potential passengers, to pull it off.

What about more distant residents? The same Board's own top-award January 2007 study on pedestrian habits shows that "Pedestrians walk farther to access light rail" than commonly assumed; namely, a most common "distance of about a half-mile." In other words, citing who lives within a mile or more of the tracks doesn't make the picture any rosier.

The upshot seems to be that while buying the tracks may make for a good long-term public investment simply to keep a contiguous path intact, and a rail-trail may be pleasant for recreational use, there isn't going to be, from existing evidence, any practical passenger rail service, and certainly little if any congestion relief from doing so. In fact, attempting passenger rail, at its high cost, may well drain the bus system of funds, service and riders, and actually eventually increase auto traffic, and therefore congestion.

So the investment question is whether purchasing what will become a bicycling and walking trail is worth $6,000 per county family. That, steam and tunnels aside, appears to be the bottom line.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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