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June 13-20, 2007

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bridge to possibility

Bridge to possibility: A small-scale rail system would bypass seismic upgrades to trestles, making it more cost-effective than full service.

Start Small, Dream Big

A reasonable proposal for basic rail transit in Santa Cruz County

By Bruce Sawhill

The recent Nūz article "Train, Train, Train" (April 11) discussed the topic of passenger rail and its financial implications, but was developed from the train systems concept discussed in the 1998 Major Transportation Investment Study (MTIS). The MTIS study presented several very comprehensive and expensive "dream system" rail ideas. Someday the political will and user base may support this level of rail service, but one could get started with a more modest proposal for a fraction of the costs figures presented.

The MTIS study is frequently brought up in any local transportation discussion, as it is the most recent and comprehensive study available. Unfortunately, it is already significantly out of date. To take one example, it overestimated the rate of population growth by almost fourfold over what has actually occurred since 1990. To take another, total county employment has remained almost unchanged from 1990, far off-track of the 36 percent growth from 1990 to 2015 projected in the report. This is important because many of the study's projected numbers about traffic and congestion are derived from population and employment figures.

Nonetheless, traffic is getting worse. People are taking more and longer trips. Highway 1 can back up almost any time of day. Statistics show that most trips are short, five miles or less. Many of these short trips use the freeway, thereby interfering with the functionality of this transportation link. An efficient use of the rail corridor could change this by providing an alternative to Highway 1 for short trips.

Ingredients for Success of a Rail System:

1. Population: Rail needs high population density to be effective. Even though the average density of the county is low, the density in certain parts of the county is quite high. These parts tend to be concentrated along the rail line because of the line's historic role in settling the county. According to the Census Bureau, almost half of the county's population is within one mile of the rail line.

2. Destinations: Rail transit needs to take passengers to useful places. The rail line connects three of the major trip origin/destination areas of the county (Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville) and comes close to two others (Cabrillo College and the 41st Ave shopping areas). A direct connection to UCSC would take some work but is not out of the question.

Extra Credit:

3. Frequency: Mass transit is much more effective if one doesn't have to consult a schedule. Less than 20-minute intervals are best.

4. Speed: It doesn't have to be very fast, just faster than the alternative. In the midcounty area, 15-25 mph average speed would suffice. Between Watsonville and Santa Cruz, 25-40 mph average speed should be the norm.

5. The Last Mile: American transit systems are notorious for flunking this one--for leaving passengers stranded relatively close to their destination, but too far to walk; none worse than San Jose's light rail system. Rail transit works best without intermediates such as bus shuttles.

An Experiment in Transit

Proposal for a Proof of Concept System: Implement service between Depot Park/Santa Cruz and the Jade Street Park/ Capitola area utilizing a single DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit), a diesel-powered self-contained engine/passenger coach combination, certified for sharing a live freight line, plus spare and minimal track upgrades, while excepting the San Lorenzo trestle seismic upgrades. Stations would be not much more elaborate than bus stops. The DMU would run back and forth continuously, completing a round trip in about 30 minutes. Total cost: In the $10 million to $15 million range, and it could be operating in six months from the time of decision.~

Lessons learned from this exercise could provide guidance about how best to proceed with expansion of the system to something more comprehensive or whether to discontinue the service entirely.~Discontinuing service would incur little financial loss, as the DMUs could be sold off. Operating costs would in the $1 million to $2 million/year range. This train service would be independent of building a bike path, though allowance for a bike path should not be excluded by any rail engineering decision.

If results were encouraging, a logical next step might look like this:

1. Upgrade the line with continuously welded track and new ties with a couple of sidings for passing to allow higher speed and more frequent operation. This eliminates track "clackety-clack." Cost: About $10 million for eight miles (see No. 2 below).

2. Extend the service from the Santa Cruz Westside to the Cabrillo College area and increase from one DMUs plus one spare to four DMUs plus one spare (cost: about $10 million to $15 million, operating costs about $3 million to $4 million/year).

3. Build a Multimodal Hub at Cabrillo College. Combine a Highway 1 rail and/or pedestrian overcrossing to Cabrillo College with a freeway bus stop to make for efficient transfers between frequent buses from Watsonville and the rail line and to directly access the large user base of Cabrillo College. (Cost: about $10 million to $25 million depending on features)

To do anything, the RTC has to first buy the rail line. An engineering study must also be done to nail down the numbers more precisely, but early indications are that a freight and passenger rail can coexist with a bike path on the existing right-of-way. A well-run and well-used light rail line can absorb about half of a freeway lane's worth of traffic in each direction according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. Given that the county's growth has slowed, perhaps half of a freeway lane is enough. It costs less than half as much as widening the freeway over a comparable distance, so it makes sense on both financial and quality of life grounds. It also makes sense to do it first, as the freeway can be widened later if traffic continues to increase instead of leveling off. Of course, if we never experiment, never even try to implement a short test run, we'll all be left stuck in freeway congestion, wondering what could have been.

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