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December 20-27, 2006

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Mapping the future: Advocates say passenger trains running parallel to Highway 1 would relieve congestion.

Light at End of Tunnel for Union Pacific Buyout

Symposium focuses on how rail corridor could help cure county's growing pains

By Steve Hahn

Railroads, at the height of their dominance, circa the late 19th century, helped extend the United States' westward reach, transporting people and goods to lonely outposts on the new frontier. Flash-forward to 2006, when railroads have been nearly replaced by freeway systems in inking the nation together. As worries over unstable fuel sources and the traffic congestion resulting from urban sprawl increase, transportation methods of the past re-emerge as potential saving graces for the future.

A group of over 200 activists, politicians, experts and interested residents gathered in Capitola's Jade Street Park Community Center on Dec. 14 to discuss how the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission's (RTC) purchase of the Branch line railroad property, a rail line owned by Union Pacific (UP) that extends from Pajaro to Davenport, could lay the foundation for sustainable transportation in the future.

State Sen. John Laird , who moderated Thursday's discussion of rail corridor options ranging from a parallel pedestrian/bike trail to passenger service, stressed the importance of finding alternatives to the state's overwhelmed freeway system.

"We're potentially going to have 10 million more people in California in the next 10 years and a majority of them are going to be in the existing urban footprint," he says. "If we don't have some sort of transportation that's not people by themselves in their cars, we're not going to be able to handle the urban infill."

The current deal with UP has been in the works for over six years. The RTC originally voted to pursue acquisition of the line in 1999, and had an environmental review ready in mid-2002. By the end of 2004 the RTC had signed a letter of intent to purchase the line for $19 million. Since then, talks have been bogged down by negotiations over insurance, maintenance and price.

At the Dec. 14 symposium George Dondero, director of the RTC, said talks with UP could be completed by 2007.

Many panelists at the meeting, including Mike Hart, owner of Sierra Railroad, a company that could potentially take over and even extend UP's current operations, were adamant that this was a "last chance" for the RTC to act and that the public should pressure officials to act soon before losing over $20 million in state and $1.5 million in federal funding already set aside to pay for the transaction.

Dondero reminded the audience that public input would be sought before making changes in train scheduling, which as of now mainly consists of triweekly deliveries of cement to Cemex in Davenport. While these deliveries alone would bring some money to the RTC, more interest was raised over the possibility of introducing passenger service between the dense but far-flung population centers of the county.

Michah Posner, a senior member of People Power, a group that helped organize the symposium, believes a passenger train could help relieve congestion and clear air pollution.

"If we give people alternatives where they don't have to own cars, they can rearrange their life differently," he says, pointing out that his wife, despite biking everywhere else she goes, is currently forced to drive to Salinas to visit relatives.

Even if a passenger train doesn't gain approval, Posner sees a variety of options available for locally owned freight service."I had a conversation with Mark and Kelly from Kelly's Bakery and they could get flour by rail," he says. "If there was a freight operator that could contact Kelly's and maybe three other bakeries it would make it worth their while to bring flour in."

An extension of freight service through the county could go a long way to improve the Central Coast's clogged transportation infrastructure. Hart says that for every train car on the tracks, there are four semi trucks taken off the roads. Air pollution would be greatly decreased by train freight as well. If Hart's company was selected as the short-line operator, his trains would consume 100 percent biodiesel, and 95 percent of harmful exhaust would be filtered through nitrogen scrubbers. In addition, a passenger train could route consumers to the city's struggling business community. "The boardwalk is a huge fan of the train. Their operation is already up and running, but they can't get any more people because their parking is full," says Posner. Even if passenger trains never roll through Santa Cruz, the low-cost bike/pedestrian trail made possible by an RTC buyout would reduce automobile congestion by providing a safe and efficient corridor for short trips within the county, advocates say.

"Two-thirds of trips in the county are under five miles and one-third are under three miles," Posner reminds us, noting many bikers are intimidated and sometimes killed by cars rushing next to bike lanes.

While most questions at the symposium were friendly, not everyone is "on board" with the plan. A neighborhood group, Santa Cruz Coalition Against Recreational Rail, is opposed to the idea of additional rail services being extended to Santa Cruz county. All 20 members of this group live in houses bordering the track and have made complaints about the potential noise, safety, pollution and localized congestion problems that could be created by a trail or passenger service. It wasn't clear if members of the group were present for the symposium, but one trackside resident, Joe Ward, temporarily disrupted the meeting by screaming out, "You can come to my house and watch the windows shake every day like they have the last 30 years."

Posner hopes a deal will be reached soon so that ideas can be generated on how to use the rail corridor to help solve approaching global problems. "As far as I'm concerned we should be coming up with local solutions. We should be stopping global warming here and now by not widening Highway 1 and by putting in more sensible types of transportation."

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