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Bud Colligan: Trail-Only The Way to Go

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In a guest commentary, Santa Cruz-based venture capitalist and philanthropist Bud Colligan explains why he supports the trail-without-rail option along the railroad corridor.

April 11, 2016

Dear Editor,

I read with considerable interest your article Trail Nix by Jessica Lyons Hardcastle. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the author’s sources are pro “rail and trail,” and I think it’s important for there to be an open and candid discussion about various alternatives. As someone who cares deeply about environmental and transportation issues in our region, I’d like to offer a different perspective on this issue—one that looks at the facts fairly and that gets beyond the hype (and bureaucratic intransigence). That’s what the democratic process is all about!

Let’s be clear about the political backdrop to the story: The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC)—along with other public agencies—were able to secure “rail funds” from Proposition 116 passed by California voters in 1990, more than a quarter-century ago. Note that it was a full 22 years from the passage of this measure to the purchase of the rail corridor in 2012. Think back to 1990—Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Saleforce.com and Amazon did not exist! The world and transportation technologies have changed dramatically since then!

Once the $11 million of “rail funds” were expended, it has led to many awkward and problematic decisions driven by a lack of local funds to move the project along. For example, when the RTC specifically commissioned a study of the corridor, it prohibited a “trail only” option from even being considered. The Great Santa Cruz Trail Group—a broad-based coalition of concerned transportation advocates in Santa Cruz County—is now privately conducting that study with a reputable national transportation consultant, and it is expected to be finished in June. Unfortunately the RTC never considered all the options because of the initial “rail funds” they accepted. Many people in the county actually believe that we can only get a trail if we build rail because of this initial decision. That’s simply not the case.

Recently, some RTC Commissioners requested clarification of the use of those funds from the California Transportation Commission (CTC); the CTC letter stated that we could certainly pay back the $11M if we decide not to implement rail. The key question for our community should be: what is the best use of the corridor within an overall transit system for the county and region? Certainly we would not want to invest in a billion-dollar rail system (and that’s what it will cost for capital and operating subsidies over 30 years!) if the ridership benefits are minimal (projected in the Passenger Rail Feasibility Study [PRFS] as 2,750 round trips per day). Think about it.

The article points out the “massive amounts of public input” provided to the RTC. Given that options have never been clearly articulated with associated costs and ridership (when you go on vacation, don’t you usually compare transportation modes, schedules, costs, and the most effective means of traveling?), it is difficult to assess the validity of the input.

One thing that is clear is that many voters in Santa Cruz County are opposed to the rail plan outlined in the RTC’s PRFS (which the author could have easily discovered by going to the RTC website and reading the 200+ pages of emails and written correspondence received by the RTC). The RTC requested public comment on the PRFS, and the majority of letters received, many by prominent and thoughtful members of our community, were opposed to the rail plan.

The RTC often cites its survey (even though they said it was not scientific and would not be used to campaign for the rail plan), but the survey was designed assuming you were for rail and wanted to provide your input on various rail service options. I think we are sadly seeing from the current presidential campaign that the “establishment” does not always reflect the will of the people, so the listing of many groups who are pro-rail does not influence the common sense of the voters, who want to know things like how much will it cost, what ridership, what alternatives have been examined, have we done a thorough analysis of all options, what plan actually does reduce greenhouse gases the most, etc.?

In our unscientific survey of young people, they overwhelmingly favor a trail-only approach. Perhaps our elders should listen more closely to the voices of those that will actually be using this corridor when it is finally built (remember, similar train projects in other communities have taken about 20 years to build!).

Stephen Slade of the Land Trust (and thank you for the disclosure that the Land Trust sponsors Hilltromper; and in good faith I would also like it known that Miles Reiter and I contribute to other Land Trust campaigns and Miles is on the Land Trust’s Advisory Council) states that “…there is no reason to suppose that there would be a different outcome than the first time we went through the public process….”

Well, since all options have never been explored, it’s hard to understand how this statement can be credible. We still don’t have reliable source and destination data on Highway 1 commuters, which seems critical to either a rail or trail plan. Many proponents of rail cite its salutary effects on Highway 1 traffic. But there is no factual data to back it up. With ridership of 2,750 roundtrips per day, it definitely won’t have any impact on Highway 1 traffic!

In fact, the community as a whole (including the RTC) never explored a trail-only option. It’s clear that the public process did not evaluate important information, so I don’t know where it will ultimately come out, but to state that it’s a foregone conclusion is definitely erroneous. There is even more irony to this statement since it’s evident from reading responses to the Land Trust’s own blogsite that many of its members are for the trail-only option.

The author states that a “feasibility study is not a plan.” It certainly sounded like one when George Dondero, Executive Director of the RTC, and many surrogates wrote op-eds for the Sentinel and began an extensive set of meetings with community and business groups touting the diesel rail option. Since solid opposition to the plan has emerged (e.g. Trail Now has over 3,000 people following its Facebook page) many advocates of rail have changed their story. They aren’t for rail, but only for “preserving the option.” They want electric trains, but aren’t willing to mention that electric trains are double the cost of diesel, which was why diesel was recommended by the RTC consultants and deemed “feasible.”

Even the plan itself used to be called the Passenger Rail Feasibility Study (PRFS), but after vociferous objections to the plan, the name was changed to the Rail Transit Feasibility Study. These political machinations do not change the underlying facts. The fact is the PRFS is the only “plan” we have to evaluate at this point. The pro-rail organization Friends of the Rail Trail (FORT) and others have started talking about electric trains, trolleys, battery-powered trains, and other modalities, but these ideas have all been pushed forward since opposition to 60 diesel trains per day through our community proposed in the PRFS was made. I think all of these ideas are worth evaluating in a comprehensive look at our transit strategy.

Finally, it’s worth commenting here on the likely half-cent sales tax measure facing county voters in November. I hope everyone agrees that it would be optimal if Santa Cruz was a Self-Help County, which is one of the byproducts of the tax measure. The final allocation of the tax measure proceeds has not been determined and won’t be made until the ballot measure is submitted in August. Besides the overall percentages for 1) METRO, 2) Highways, 3) Roads, 4) Trail and 5) Train, the public deserves to know what specific improvements will cost and therefore what the actual figures for the five “buckets” should be.

For example, as it relates to the train allocation (which the article quotes as $63M,) we certainly don’t need $63M for “corridor preservation and maintenance.” Throw in $5 to $7M for an EIR (an exorbitant amount, but what I’ve been told by the RTC it will cost), we still don’t need $63M. And let’s not forget that any money from this measure allocated to the train will not move one person in the next 20 years.

I am certainly in favor of long-term transit planning, and some money should be allocated to analyze and present various transit scenarios—but I am adamantly against ideologically driven percentages that have no basis in the costs of the actual items being proposed. That type of planning is how we’ve gotten into this mess in the first place.

If we can’t learn from the past, we are destined to repeat it. So rather than attempt to discredit Trail Now, which seems to be the intention of some of the quotes in your article, perhaps actually listening to, and understanding, the objections of thousands of county residents would be a more productive strategy. I believe there is a win-win approach that involves allocating enough money to study ALL the options for a countywide transit strategy without committing a priori to one direction. That way we can get broad public support for whatever conclusion is reached.

—Bud Colligan

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First, it should be noted that we are not at this time building or funding rail, but we are obliged to future generations to be sure that rail transit is not deleted from our list of options. In the mean time, our city councils and board of supervisors have agreed to adopt the Monterey Scenic Sanctuary Trail Network plan that integrates a splendid multi-use trail with the existing active rail line.

Rail service isn't under consideration as a way to reduce highway congestion. Congestion is chronic and incurable. Rail and other forms of public transit provide options for thousands who can not or chose not to drive. Further, rail service will not only serve students and working folks, it will be a boon to tourists and shoppers and over time, TOD, transit oriented development, will transform the neighborhoods along the rail trail.

Current research is clear: "Over the last decade – after 60-plus years of steady increases – the number of miles driven by the average American has been falling. Young Americans have experienced the greatest changes: driving less; taking transit, biking and walking more; and seeking out places to live in cities and walkable communities where driving is an option, not a necessity." http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/millennials-motion

Equity demands that we keep the rail option viable and available. Thousands of users might be able to live their lives without owning a car at all, freeing up thousands of dollars per household per year.

To find the “Best and Highest Use” for this community owned asset, we might take a page from this American tradition:

What lifts the least served among us lifts us all.

 

Thank you for providing a very fair and meaningful response to the original article. The rail trail is a very antiquated solution to the problem before us. We are at a point where there will be a radilcal transformation in public transportation with transportation as a service TaaS. The early versions of this we are seeing is with services such as Lyft and Uber. Vehicles are readily available to transport people from their homes to their destinations. I am sure rail proponents will be quick to point out the current high cost, but that is mostly because of the high labor and reimbursement costs to the drivers, with automation coming from just about every vehicle manufacturer out there, we are only a couple of years away from seeing autonomous vehicles being used in the service. This will drastically reduce the cost and bring it more in line with public transportation costs today. TaaS uses today's infrasturucture, available now and is non-discriminatory against the disabled or elderly, it gives them the freedom and independence they. A trail only approach reduces polution and provides a safe place for people to walk, jog and bike ride against one of the most beuatiful and scenic places in the world. Lastly one point that neither site brings awareness to is the issue of suicide by train. The Trail Nix article mentions the track pass by 45 schools. Palo Alto has had a spike in Suicide by Train by students in recent years along the CAL train tracks. The community has resorted hiring security guards at each CAL Train crossing along with fencing which divides the community at the tracks. Rail & Trail is simply the gold-plated telegraph that is not only expensive, but a dangerous antiquated solution that we cannot afford.

 

Rail transit opponents often cite emerging technologies Uber and autonomous vehicles as the solution to our problems but never, ever, explain how these are going to help the minimum wage mom make ends meet. These technologies don't work for most folks as they're too expensive. An Uber ride from Watsonville to Santa Cruz is $32. A train ride is $5 round trip, less than the cost to park a car downtown for 8 hours.
Further, autonomous vehicles, Uber, and Lyft use the same highways that are currently congested, they don't solve the problems created by auto-oriented development and dependence on motor vehicles; they perpetuate them.
Rail transit is anything but antiquated. Modern urban trains and streetcars are quiet and clean, battery-electric power is becoming more common, and we see that rail is a key element in the world's most beautiful cities here and abroad. More and more people want an alternative to motor vehicle dependence.
This is our chance. Modern rail transit provides that alternative while also providing a great bike-ped trail.

 

Like I said, lots of the same old arguments for the same old solutions. As noted in my original response, the cost goes down when you remove the driver and the driver's ownership of the vehicle. Hopefully people are working to do better than minimum wage, but even if they give in to the minimum wage mentality, it is still quite affordable. Safe (Not only are 33,000 people dying unnecessarily on merican roads annually, trains divide neighborhoods and are a major safety hazard). If the trail only solution existed, I could literally put a gate in my rear fence and jump on the trail with my bike. With a rail solution, I am sure a gate would be deemed illegal and I would have to travel over 3/4 of a mile to get to the trail and more than a mile to get to a train station. This would be an insurmountable obstacle to the elderly and disabled in my neighborhood. Lastly, Barry claims modern rail is quiet and clean, but that is not true for what is proposed for Rail and Trail here. What is being proposed for our area is not quiet. The trains will be required to blow horns approaching crossings (Maybe a permit will be issued in some areas in "quiet zomes" [a.k.a high income neighborhoods], but they certainly won't be issued in my area and definitely not where his minimum wage mother lives). The trains also proposed are not clean, the trains being proposed are diesel hybrids, not electric trolleys. This will be an expensive, antiquated mistake. Transporation as a Service will be here much more quickly as the infrastructure already exists, taxpayers will not need to heavily subsidize ridership and we will not be subject to noise, pollution, labor strikes and budget cuts that cripple mass transit in other areas. Just look at the current budget crisis with bus service in Santa Cruz. THe trains will be evn more susceptible

 

You wrote: "If the trail only solution existed, I could literally put a gate in my rear fence and jump on the trail with my bike."
Let's please remember that this asset is county property, acquired for the benefit of all citizens, not just homeowners who chose to live on an active rail corridor. That needs to be said.

To your other points, we can (and probably will) have both: driverless cars and better transit, and both will provide benefits over the current limited mobility choices.

Quiet and clean trains: Safe quiet zones with quad crossing require no horns whatsoever and their placement isn't dependent upon average neighborhood income; there's no reason we can't have them at every crossing. Train propulsion technology hasn't been determined. The study used DMU diesel hybrids in it's hypothetical scenarios, but by the time a selection is made the market will have changed.

Self driving cars offer a better world potentially free of car ownership and requiring less parking infrastructure, but nothing indicates that the cost will be significantly better for working class travelers than current conditions.

For now, Transit users in cities with robust transit systems can save up to $10,230 per year by taking transit rather than owning a vehicle. The image below is taken from the Federal Highway Administration. http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/livability/fact_sheets/transandhousing.cfm

 

So are you saying that we CAN afford to continue to invest in our crumbling highway system? Lyft, Uber autonomous vehicles are all poor examples because they do nothing to relieve road congestion. They are merely alternate modes of auto transportation that once again force users to be prisoners to their cars on our crumbling, traffic-choked highways.

Suicide by train is truly grasping at straws here. While it is tragic that individuals have chosen to end their lives by standing in front of a moving train, it is utterly irrelevant in this argument. There are far more deaths via car accidents. California officials say they saw a 13 percent uptick over three recent years through 2013 and expect that trend to continue when 2014 numbers are finalized. California officials say there are more pedestrians and cyclists on the streets, and more of them are getting hit by cars -- not trains.
http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/transportation/article36766929.html

Giving people another option instead of driving is the name of the game. Passenger rail and walking trails are both good starts.

 

Years ago, every major and minor city wanted a railroad connecting them to the outside world, as it would be a benefit to them. As railroads were privately operated, those residents did not have to subsidize it. Then came the birth of the auto and the massive "public works" project to build the roads. Taxpayers did not mind the huge subsidies for this because they personally benefited from it - and it meant personal freedom. In 2016, public officials are trying to undo the severe damage this dreadful public policy has caused. Except now public transportation (read: railroads) require subsidies. Those who have a car (or two, three or four) claim it will not benefit them personally, so it is deemed bad. What Colligan, Brian Peoples and those with their small town mentality fail to see is that the railroad --- like highways --- connects them to the larger region.

It is the classic American "me" vs "we" mentality and nothing more. If it does not benefit me directly, do not tax me. Buses and trains are for those less fortunate who cannot afford several cars in their garage, a mentality that . So let's analyse Mr. Colligan's white privilege piece cloaked as an OpEd from a "concerned" citizen:

Good public subsidies that benefit "ME"
- highways
- highway patrol/maintenence
- Social Security
- airports
- rail trails (assuming everyone is healthy and fit enough to use them)
- police department
- fire department
- water department
- public schools
- public parks and recreation
- U.S. defense department
- Medicare

Bad public subsidies that do not benefit "ME"
- public transportation (trains, buses)
- subsidized housing
- Medicaid
- unemployment benefits
- VA benefits
-

In the end, the trail will no doubt be a great benefit to the region. But at no point should it be considered or built at the expense of a viable and important railway corridor that will help make Santa Cruz a more accessible tourist and residential destination than it already is.