Plans to bring Amtrak to the Peninsula hinge on Seaside.
Thursday, October 21, 1999
Want to be able to take the train to San Francisco? Better call Seaside City Hall.
Amtrak''s ready to roll. The state has given most of its OKs. County transportation officials have access to the $14 million needed to refurbish the tracks. But the train can''t chug into town without a station to pull into. And it''s up to Seaside to pay for one.
Seaside wasn''t the first choice for a terminus on the Peninsula. That, no surprise, was Monterey, because the proposed daily rail service would mainly serve Peninsula-bound, day-tripping tourists rather than locals heading up to the Bay Area. Naturally, county transportation planners seemed to feel that more tourists would choose to alight in Monterey than Seaside.
But Monterey''s City Council, however flattered they might have been by the offer, turned it down in 1997, saying it didn''t want to pay for a train station "at this time." After that rebuff by Mayor Albert and Co., the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) redrew its maps to have the line terminate in Seaside, at the northwest corner of Canyon Del Rey Boulevard and Del Monte Avenue.
Accordingly, Seaside officials approved a $4.7 million proposal to build a train station there. But the current City Council, newly composed following last November''s election, isn''t bound by that agreement.
In July, Mayor Jerry Smith told the Weekly that while he didn''t oppose the idea of Seaside building a station, it was "something the previous administration committed to with very little public knowledge or input." The plan, Smith said, still has to pass muster with the city''s new leadership--and with the people.
"We need Seaside," says TAMC''s Mary Orrison. "We will not be able to get the money for the capital improvements without a guarantee that there will be an end station."
In hopes of getting Seaside to go along with the program, TAMC unveiled its proposal at a special City Council meeting last Saturday. TAMC showed up with the big guns; Amtrak''s Dominic Spaethling came armed with an impressive slide show and schmooze campaign. But it turned out they needn''t have worried overmuch.
Councilmembers, while asking pointed questions, seemed quite well-disposed towards the idea, particularly when city engineer Diana Ingersoll pointed out that Seaside doesn''t have to build a fancy station, as was proposed two years ago. Instead, the city could put up a "basic unstaffed platform"--12 feet wide and about 800 feet long--which would cost about $620,000, peanuts by municipal finance standards.
But the city''s Redevelopment Agency still has to look over the plan, which could happen as early as Nov. 18. "It was a good project in 1997, and it''s a good project today," Smith said at meeting''s end Saturday. "We want to embrace it, but with the community."
Does Seaside have the money? Yes, if they choose to spend it on the train. Just enough grant money is available, but most of it will be lost if the city doesn''t match it by next June 30.
If Seaside decides against building a train station (or platform), Orrison says TAMC may have to look elsewhere--perhaps Salinas. That won''t be necessary, comforts Guillen. "I think the council generally supports the project. We''re just asking our staff to sharpen its pencils."
Even if the project goes forward, don''t look for a train pulling into Seaside in the near future. In July, TAMC predicted rail service could begin by next fall, but maybe as late as 2001. The agency has since pushed back that date by at least three years.
Meanwhile, other funding and logistical questions remain open. The state Legislature has approved the $4.1 million TAMC needs to operate the train for its first year, but not beginning until 2002. And, TAMC is still negotiating with Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks between Castroville and Seaside. Once access is secured, TAMC estimates, it''ll take two to three-and-a-half years to complete the needed track improvements.
And, at any rate, Ingersoll says, even the most basic platform idea she outlined for the council on Saturday would take two to three years to complete--at least.
Don''t sell your car, just yet.