Locals, Yokels And Tourists
Once upon a time there were three train proposals, three intended user groups and three very different ideas about community growth.
Thursday, April 12, 2001
Imagine yourself gliding silently to work in a lightweight, solar-powered railcar, the sparkling Monterey Bay to the west, the rising sun to the east. No diesel fumes or thundering engine sounds accost your still-waking senses. Relaxed and happy, you email a friend who is traveling through Europe, then hop onto an exercise bike, proud to know that with each pedal you are helping to power the train and earn credit against your 50-cent fare. By the time the train reaches its Seaside stop, you are dreaming of a yogurt smoothie and the ride home.
This is life aboard SolTrain, the brainchild of the Santa Cruz-based, nonprofit community development group Sustainable Monterey Bay. While SolTrain may sound like a pipe dream, Sustainable Monterey Bay recently used $65,000 in public and private funds to build a prototype of the 20-passenger Ultra Light Solar Electric Rail Vehicle--the first of its kind in the world. Testing will begin in a couple of weeks, and Sustainable Monterey Bay hopes to initiate a trolley-like commuter service between Marina and Seaside using the old tracks that used to bring hordes of tourists to the Peninsula.
But SolTrain is just one of several rail proposals currently on the books in the region, and not the one currently voted "most likely to succeed."
Decades after the old Del Monte train screeched to a final halt after nearly a century of service to the Peninsula, state funds are finally flowing toward the re-establishment of viable local rail routes. But as funding deadlines near, a struggle persists over how to bring cities, residents, and the Transportation Authority for Monterey County to agreement on what type of train would best serve Monterey County.
The train proposal closest to seeing light at the end of the tunnel--the CalTrain commuter extension from Gilroy to Salinas--is as far from SolTrain as it could be. The extension train would carry an estimated 900 commuters a day from stops in Pajaro, Salinas and Castroville to Silicon Valley, and would run on a standard diesel line.
Finally, there''s the troubled proposal to resuscitate the Del Monte line, a tourist fast-rail service from San Francisco to Seaside designed to get an optimal number of sightseers in and out of the Peninsula on any given day.
After years of bickering between proponents of the commuter extension and the tourist service, the commuter line won a decisive victory in late March when the transportation authority allotted it up to $500,000 a year in operating costs. With that money designated, the authority can now approach the state for the $23 million allocated to the county for track and station improvements.
The deal was sealed only after Salinas and the county of Monterey offered to put up $100,000 each in the event that authority could not meet its financial commitment. The authority''s executive director, Lee Yarborough, explains that the votes of confidence were "necessary."
After a prolonged struggle to convince the county to prioritize the commuter line above the tourist line, Salinas was more than willing to oblige, according to Salinas City Councilmember Jyl Lutes. Lutes'' role as a transportation authority board member and representative of North Salinas--home to most of the city''s commuters--puts her at the forefront of the great train debate. She says the city was concerned that the $23 million in state funds would soon evaporate.
"Salinas really needed to say to TAMC, ''We''re really willing to go out on a limb to make a commitment, because this is a regional project that will benefit the region,''" Lutes explains. "We don''t want to get into this ''which transit is the most important?'' debate. That way, we can get this thing moving."
And Lutes heralds the Gilroy extension for its potential service to local residents, even if they are the Silicon Valley commuters often blamed for rising home prices and community disintegration. "I hate the idea of Salinas becoming a bedroom community," she admits, "but there we are."
LandWatch of Monterey County''s Gary Patton is far less comfortable with the bedroom community designation, saying that a rail link to Silicon Valley represents a real shift in the county''s thinking on development.
"This money that [the transportation authority is] using is totally discretionary: It could be used to upgrade street maintenance, make turning lanes on [Highway] 68, or solve various traffic problems in the county," says Patton. "The next question is ''do we want people to commute from Monterey County to Silicon Valley?'' It''s already happening, but once you subsidize it, you''re saying ''we want this.'' Is this in fact what the county wants? The answer you give determines the future of the community."
In Patton''s eyes, the Seaside tourist train is more in keeping with the county''s goal to be a world-class destination for visitors. The authority continues to give the Del Monte proposal high priority as well, and is currently in negotia- tions with Union Pacific to purchase the Branch Line from Pajaro to Seaside.
But Seaside and Marina both say they have issues with the rail proposed for their backyards. They fear the $30-roundtrip schedule designed to give San Francisco boarders a day on Cannery Row offers little to local residents while inflicting potentially high financial and environmental costs.
Seaside''s new city manager, Dan Keen, says it straight. "I''ll be honest with you--we established four top priorities, and this is not one of them. The council and the staff have a lot of questions about feasibility of this train and the timing."
Marina Mayor Jim Perrine says his city''s position has been to support the concept of the train, but only with serious mitigation of noise impact, safety issues related to the speed of train and potential traffic congestion.
Marina councilmember, Sustainable Monterey Bay founding member, and transportation authority board member Michael Morrison says he''s prepared to go as far as trying to push through a city ordinance that would ban diesel trains from Marina city limits. For Morrison, a low-impact light rail serving local residents (read: SolTrain) wins hands-down over a fancy fast rail.
"The SolTrain is perhaps the best concept yet to come along," says Morrison. "It is solar [electric], therefore it is quiet, non-polluting, and in addition would be a major draw for eco-tourism. How can you argue against a train that uses no fossil fuels, emits no harmful toxins into the air we breathe and poses no environment hazards to our community?"
Ted Lahti, executive director of Sustainable Monterey Bay, agrees. "I totally don''t think we should take tons of steel and diesel to bring tourists here. Tourists will find their own way here. We need to put locals first," Lahti muses. "This isn''t a technological problem, it''s a political problem--that''s all it is."
But according to Mary Orrison, a senior planner at the authority, existing obstacles to SolTrain--namely federal railroad requirements for buffer strength to sustain collision--make it extremely unlikely that SolTrain will beat the fast-rail tourist train to the tracks. Nor is SolTrain likely to be included in the transportation authority''s upcoming application for state funding. "We need to get the Del Monte service started, and then we''d certainly be happy to work with the SolTrain people to see how we can incorporate their plans," says Orrison.
In the meantime, not even the Salinas commuter train will be heard rumbling down the tracks any day soon. With negotiations underway for track access from Union Pacific and a massive parking lot still needed at the Salinas station, the authority estimates at least three years before the train would hit the tracks. Ever eager to get the show on the road, Lutes says, "I''m thinking that''s typical government bureaucracy, and I''d like to see it go faster."