Plans are chugging along to bring passenger train service back to the Monterey area, but not everyone is on board.
Thursday, July 15, 1999
Ron Sanders isn''t at all happy at the idea of Seaside building a train station right where his auto repair shop now stands on Del Monte Boulevard.
Sanders, owner of Ronnie Sanders Auto Service, moved his business from Monterey to Seaside this past March. "They told us about the train coming back when [the owner] bought the building," he acknowledges. But he doesn''t see the sense in building a station in downtown Seaside.
"Why don''t they put it at Fort Ord?" he suggests. "There''s plenty of property there, and they''ve got parking.
"I''ve taken over a business with a 50-year clientele," Sanders states. "They''re not going to get me out without a fight."
It looks like Sanders better get out his boxing gloves.
If the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) and Amtrak have their way, a spanking new Amtrak Intercity passenger train might start up again as early as the fall of next year, running passengers between San Francisco and Seaside once a day.
It''s far from a done deal. Not only does the state Department of Transportation have to sign off on the proposal, negotiations for track access and repairs are still underway with Union Pacific, which owns the tracks between Monterey County and the Bay Area. And disgruntled voices from Sand City and Marina are saying, "Hey, don''t run that thing through our city."
There''s another hitch: According to the proposal now before the state, Monterey County is asking for just one train a day. That train would leave San Francisco every morning for Seaside, and leave Seaside only in the evening for the trip back north.
Critics of this plan say it offers nothing to Monterey County residents. Because of its backward schedule, they say, it would only serve tourists from San Francisco looking to spend the day on the Monterey Peninsula. And it wouldn''t help Salinas at all, they point out. Why not scrap that plan, they say, and run a commuter train into Salinas by extending the CalTrain that now stops in Gilroy? That''s a plan that would serve locals instead of tourists.
There''s real money at stake--$17 million in funding earmarked for restoring passenger rail service in Monterey County under Proposition 116, the state rail bond measure approved by voters in 1990. But the gift has an expiry date: If no proposal for rail service is approved by the state by the end of 2001, the funding disappears.
A big step forward toward getting that money in county hands was made on July 12, when the TAMC rail policy committee hammered out a two-pronged revision of the agency''s proposal to the state transportation department. Instead of requesting funding only for a Seaside-San Francisco Amtrak train, the committee will recommend that TAMC apply to use its Prop. 116 money to fund two projects: an Intercity line to Seaside, and a commuter line to Salinas.
Included in TAMC''s revised proposal, which will be voted on and probably approved by the TAMC board at its July 28 meeting, is a request for $3 million to go to Salinas, to use for track and station improvements and a layover facility at the Salinas station. TAMC will still ask the state for permission to use $14 million of its Prop. 116 money for capital improvements on the San Fransisco-to-Seaside run, to get the 14.3-mile track between Castroville and Seaside up to speed.
"We think there''s enough money to do both projects," says TAMC acting executive director DeEtta Nicely.
Salinas City Councilmember Jyl Lutes, an early and vocal opponent of any rail proposal that left Salinas out in the cold, says her city''s efforts to be included in new passenger rail service are now vindicated. "We are thrilled," she says. "The most important thing that came out of this meeting is that we are now going to be on equal footing."
Although Salinas and TAMC are now working hand-in-hand, there are still plenty of folks opposed to all or part of their new plan. Hundreds of homeowners in Marina, who purchased houses or apartments along the old Union Pacific right-of-way, may wake up one day to find an Amtrak Intercity train roaring past their quiet suburban windows. Environmentalists are concerned that increased rail service to Salinas will simply encourage more development and more encroachment on our fast-disappearing ag lands. Commuters grumble that the Seaside service, as outlined today, was put together with the needs of tourists rather than local residents in mind.
It''s clear that efforts to restore passenger rail service to our area involve more than simply acquiring the funds and convincing policy makers--and the public--that investment in rail infrastructure is environmentally and fiscally sound. It''s a political decision, involving plans for urban growth and development and the distribution of wealth within a community.
"You can''t just stick up your hand and say, ''We want a train,''" cautions Potter. "You have to have a business plan that works." And you have to consider all the ramifications of that plan, he adds, ramifications that extend far beyond the few hundred people who will ride that train every day.
On The Fast Track
The last time a passenger train pulled into the Monterey Peninsula was April 30, 1971, the final run of the old Del Monte line. Ridership had fallen off steadily on that train, which had provided daily round-trip service between San Francisco and downtown Monterey since the 1890s.
The next day, May 1, 1971, the nation''s passenger rail service was consolidated in the hands of a new private company called Amtrak, which immediately slashed the number of passenger runs in half and completely cut off entire areas of the country--including the Monterey Peninsula--in the effort to restore solvency to an industry that had been losing money for years.
"It''s true, trains lose money," says Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Association of Rail Passengers, a Washington, D.C.-based rail advocacy group. "That''s why Amtrak was created in the first place."
The gasoline crunch of the early 1970s, coupled with rising national environmental awareness, strengthened the case for putting many of the discarded passenger rail lines back into service. People realized, Leonard says, that although large subsidies were needed to keep trains running, there are many "hidden costs" involved in building highways and railroads.
"People ''choose'' to drive, but they don''t talk about the ways that government makes it easy to make that choice, by sending troops overseas to make sure we have enough oil, by government owning the land needed for highway," Leonard enumerates. "It all works together, and you can''t put an easy dollar amount on it like you can for Amtrak subsidies. Trains have operating losses, but highways don''t pay their own way, either."
California leads the nation, Leonard says, in working to restore passenger rail service. In 1973, the San Diegan Intercity line began running between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Two other Intercity lines followed: the San Joaquin, which hooked up Oakland and Bakersfield in 1974; and the Capitol route, linking Colfax to San Jose in 1991.
Monterey County, however, fell between the cracks. The only train service available today to Monterey County residents is the Coast Starlight, an Amtrak line that runs from Los Angeles to Vancouver, British Columbia. That train passes through Salinas twice a day, making the Salinas-San Francisco trip in four hours--five hours, if you start out in Monterey.
"We have a very big gap in train service between San Jose and San Luis Obispo, and that gap is Monterey County," says Mary Orrison, associate transportation planner at TAMC.
In 1995, TAMC contracted with DeLeuw Cather & Company for $300,000 to evaluate seven rail service options into Monterey County. Based on their research, which included surveys of several thousand visitors to the Monterey Peninsula, TAMC decided to push forward with an Amtrak Intercity train between San Francisco and downtown Monterey. "This service was selected as being the most cost-effective service with the most ridership demand," reads the consultants'' final report.
The proposal, as it stands today, involves one daily round-trip between San Francisco and Seaside (not Monterey) for $30 per person. TAMC estimates the first-year annual ridership will approach 72,000 people and will cost $6.13 million to operate. Based on those numbers, TAMC projects it will recover almost $1 million annually in fares, which means the agency will still need just over $5 million annually in state subsidies to keep the service afloat. (Those figures do not include whatever Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, will charge Amtrak for track access.)
TAMC is hoping the legislature will approve the $5 million annual subsidy in its next year''s budget. If that happens, this Intercity line could begin operating as soon as Oct. 1, 2000. "There''s a fairness issue here," says Orrison. "The [state''s] Public Transit Account funds the other three Intercity routes. It''s California money funding these lines, and we''re California citizens, too, aren''t we?"
Sen. McPherson has been working hard to get that state approval, and he''s confident it''s in the works. His Senate Bill 886, authorizing Monterey County to contract with both Amtrak and CalTrans for train service, passed the Senate unanimously; that bill was presented to the Assembly July 6 by Speaker Pro-Tempore Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), where it received just one "nay" vote, indicating strong local bipartisan support. From there, McPherson predicts it''s an easy next step to securing legislative approval of the needed annual subsidy.
The mood in the capital is pro-train, he explains. "There''s an identified need for rail service and a popularity for rail service," he says. "By July 1 of next year, we''ll know for sure whether it''s in next year''s budget."
Supervisor Potter says there was some talk in Sacramento of securing an extra $1.5 million to start rail service to the Peninsula by July 1, 2000, but those hopes were definitively quashed last week. "I''d like to see the train on the track next summer, but realistically, I can''t read the political tea leaves well enough to know if it''ll happen," he says. "The worst case scenario is, we''ll see it in the next year''s budget," which means the train will commence service by the fall of 2001.
Not In My City
That timetable is still pretty optimistic, some people point out. Even if TAMC secures a state commitment to provide the $5 million annual subsidy the service will need to operate, the train has to have a station at which to alight. And that station has to be paid for by the local city.
Monterey was TAMC''s first choice as the new train''s final destination. But Monterey turned down the plan at a City Council meeting in 1997, saying it didn''t want "at this time" to earmark city funds for a train station.
Monterey Mayor Dan Albert says the Monterey City Council wasn''t sure the project would go forward at the state level and didn''t want to be caught holding the bag. "We didn''t want to be the first ones out there. We wanted to take a look at it first."
Although money concerns were primary, the city was, Albert says, "also concerned about the visual impact of tracks running across Window on the Bay." The passenger rail right-of-way, obtained by the city in 1982, runs right along the waterfront Recreation Trail, which would have to be ripped up for rail service into downtown Monterey to resume.
After Monterey turned the project down, TAMC rewrote its proposal to have the line terminate in Seaside, at the Monterey city border. "It''s still our long-term goal to have daily rail service all the way into Monterey," Orrison says. And that''s still a possibility, Albert adds. "If the train does go through and starts to bring people down in one or two years, we''ll take another look at it at that time," he says.
Meanwhile, Orrison says TAMC and Amtrak are happy with the idea of a final station stop in Seaside. "The corner of Canyon Del Rey and Del Monte is an excellent location," Orrison says. And the city of Seaside is right behind the plan, she maintains. They have "hired a consultant," she says, and have secured two grants of $520,000 toward the cost of a train station that should cost $1.2 million, which will be ready to receive passengers next year.
But, if TAMC''s plans hinge on Seaside having its train station ready by next summer, or even by the summer of 2001, they might want to think again.
Seaside Mayor Jerry Smith says a new train station is not part of the city''s development plans at this time. The idea of a train station "was only briefly discussed" at the city''s last economic development meeting, and the topic has not come up before the City Council since his administration took office last November. "This project was a project the previous administration committed to with very little public knowledge or input," he says. "This is something that still has to be presented to the City Council as a whole. This has not been a high visibility project. Most of the community is not even aware of it."
Smith acknowledges that Seaside has access to the grant money Orrison speaks of, if it chooses to push ahead with a station. And while he "is not against" the idea of building a train station in Seaside, no such plans are in the works--no consultants have been hired, he says, and no requests for proposals have gone out. So if TAMC and Amtrak West, the division of Amtrak that serves California, are planning on bringing an Intercity line into Seaside anytime soon, they''d better start making some presentations to his city. "If they''re talking about two years, I''d be very skeptical," he says.
Other voices are louder in their opposition to the TAMC proposal. Marina City Councilmember Howard Gustafson notes that hundreds of new homes in Marina are built right up against the train tracks going into Seaside. Children play on those tracks, and people cross them to get to and from their homes. TAMC and the county have charged ahead, Gustafson says, with their Amtrak Intercity plan without taking Marina''s residential needs into consideration.
"Just to bring 400 people down on the train from the Bay Area doesn''t justify the risk," he complains. "I thought the county wanted to work with the communities. That''s what [new Monterey County CEO] Sally Reed says. Here they did this demo train [on June 13], and we got almost no notice of it."
TAMC head Nicely questions Gustafson''s objection, saying Marina homeowners knew perfectly well they were buying homes on a rail right-of-way. "There are tracks there," she notes. "You''d have to be blind not to see them. If a real estate agent told them there would never be a train going through, they were given false information." At any rate, she adds, TAMC will conduct environmental studies before any train resumes service. "One, maybe two trains a day, I can''t see there will be any great impact," she says.
The Seaside situation may be more problematic, however. "I don''t know what will happen if Seaside pulls out," she admits. "The cost involved in putting up a platform isn''t that great, but." Her voice trails away. "Hopefully the cities will figure out a coordinated position."
Salinas Ignored Again?
One of the most vocal critics of TAMC''s original plan, to run a train only between Seaside and San Francisco, was Salinas City Councilmember Lutes, who also sits on TAMC.
Both the train''s proposed daily schedule and its destination city were, she believed, faulty. The county''s commuting population lives in Salinas, particularly in the developments of North Salinas, and they need several daily trains--not just one--traveling from Salinas in the morning up to the Bay Area and returning at night.
Meanwhile, in contrast to Seaside, which hasn''t even approved plans for a train station, Salinas has already allocated more than $2.5 million to build an Intermodal Transit Center, tied into development of the National Steinbeck Center. That''s more than enough for TAMC to take Salinas seriously, Lutes argued.
Her argument was persuasive. At its July 12 meeting, the TAMC rail policy committee accepted Lutes'' recommendation to "make service to Salinas a higher rail passenger service priority." TAMC already has a task force studying the CalTrain commuter extension option into Salinas, and agreed this week to fund a new study that will look at the commuter rail needs of Salinas and South County, including ridership projections, similar to what was done for the Monterey Peninsula.
One impediment to extending a commuter train into Salinas, rather than bringing in an Amtrak Intercity, is that the state won''t subsidize operating expenses for a strictly commuter train. Nicely says that''s not an insurmountable problem. "There are various ways to fund such a service," she says, including a sales tax measure that may be placed on the state ballot next November.
The CalTrain extension option faces other opposition, on environmental grounds. Some critics charge that extending a commuter train into Salinas would not serve existing Salinas residents so much as future residents, and would therefore be a growth-inducing, pro-development move. They note that several major Silicon Valley companies, including IBM and the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, sit on the TAMC commuter train task force.
"The county and Salinas would have to decide whether they want to become even more of a bedroom community for the Silicon Valley," warns LandWatch Executive Director Gary Patton. He points to Walnut Creek, where a once-rural area similar to North Salinas became home to high-rise apartment buildings after BART went in.
"When you make major investments in infrastructure, patterns of growth in a community change," he explains. "If Salinas and the county want that destiny, then rail is certainly a better option than building more highways, but they need to think seriously about what they''re doing."
Lutes takes issue with such fears, saying they are outweighed by the present needs of existing residents. "There are already a ton of commuters in Salinas," she says. "When we had a moratorium on growth, Salinas grew by 3 percent. When we didn''t have a moratorium on growth, Salinas still grew by 3 percent. People are going to be commuting whether we put a moratorium on growth or not."
Patton, on the other hand, is strongly in favor of bringing Amtrak passenger service into Seaside, on economic and environmental grounds. First, he says, it would help relieve congestion on the highways, particularly from visitors looking to come down for major events such as the AT&T Pro-Am. And it would "encourage community-centered growth," he says, helping Seaside revitalize businesses in the nearby Del Monte Boulevard commercial district, and helping other small cities all along the line. "It seems to us a win-win approach with little downside," he says.
Some Seaside businesses near the site of the proposed train station are excited. "I think it will help all Seaside businesses," says Ayyad Abdel Shahid, owner of Gyros and Falafel House on Del Monte Boulevard. "This area is like a desert--no customers. We are barely surviving. We are looking for some development, and this is the first real action we''ve seen from the city. We need all the support they can give us."
Others are not so sure the kind of business a train station brings in is what they want. "Just think of every train station you''ve ever been in," says Philo Holder of American Lock and Key Service on Del Monte Boulevard. "Look at the Santa Barbara station. People hanging around, harassing you, pushing old people, asking for money. It seems that building a train station on Del Monte will just bring more of that to this spot."
Who Should Pay?
One of the most often-heard criticisms of the proposed Amtrak service for Seaside is its operating schedule, which was consciously designed by TAMC primarily to serve visitors to the Monterey Peninsula rather than local residents.
If this new train is designed to help the tourism industry, critics charge, then why isn''t the tourism industry helping to foot the bill? Some of the bigger Las Vegas casinos are kicking in funding for a new Las Vegas-Los Angeles Intercity line that is being planned for next February. Why don''t the major Monterey hotels ante up, too?
Not much hope of that, says Burke Pease, executive director of the Monterey County Travel and Tourism Alliance (MCTTA). "In the ''70s, during the gasoline crisis, there was some interest among local hotels" to put money towards restoring passenger rail service into Monterey, he says. "This time around, I haven''t seen that interest. Comparing our region to Las Vegas, with their enormous gaming revenues, is not a good match."
Besides, Pease continues, the economic impact a few hundred extra daily visitors will have on the county''s huge tourism industry will be negligible. Do the numbers, he suggests: The county pulls in $1.6 billion a year from tourism. Based on TAMC''s ridership estimate of 71,000 train passengers the first year of a new Amtrak service to Seaside, combined with MCTTA''s figures showing the average visitor to the Peninsula spends $116.50 per visit, this train would generate only about $10 million to $18 million in visitor expenditure its first year. It''s still money, but hardly enough to induce major investment by local hotel chains.
For now, it looks as if TAMC will go ahead with its two-pronged request for two new passenger rail services into Monterey County.
But both Sen. McPherson and Amtrak officials caution against trying to do too much, too quickly. Liz O''Donoghue of Amtrak West says that Amtrak is already deep into delicate negotiations with Union Pacific over track access for one daily train. "To squeeze another whole round-trip into it would mean an entire new round of negotiations," she says.
McPherson notes that the state Legislature is primed to approve funding for the TAMC project as it was presented, and it might balk if asked to consider an altered proposal. "The people involved are interested in fast delivery," he says. "It''s probably late in the game to [change the proposal]. I''m not against the idea of serving as many communities as possible, but let''s see this option in place for a while before we add additional stops."
But TAMC chair Potter isn''t fazed. We can have it all, he believes. The public wants these trains. The mood in Sacramento is pro-train. Even the new administration is, he points out, "focused on rail service."
"It''s no coincidence that the Coast Starlight has the number one ridership of any Amtrak train in America," he states. The time to strike out for state money for train service is now, he urges. "Seventy-five percent of the state''s voting public lives within an hour''s drive of the coast," he says. And those people want trains. As an elected official, he smiles, you''d "have to be crazy" to ignore that.