Railroad Days Ahead
Ambitious plans are underway for expanded rail service in Salinas and on the Peninsula.
Thursday, October 10, 2002
While the county continues to be held hostage by astronomical project cost estimates of the Prunedale/ Highway 101 bypass project, a ongoing campaign is also under way to re-establish passenger rail service to Monterey County.
The Prunedale bypass project cost estimates have leapt from $210 million to $646 million, threatening all other transportation planning in the county. Still, planners continue to lay the groundwork needed to bring passenger rail service back to Salinas and the Peninsula.
There are three main thrusts to current regional rail service planning: an extension of existing Caltrain commuter service south to Salinas; a re-linking of a regular passenger line from Monterey to San Francisco; and the Coast Daylight line, which would run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Salinas line is expected to carry 226,000 riders per year and cost $23 million to start up. The Monterey Branch line is expected to carry 148,500 passengers per year and cost $14 million to start running. Funding sources come from various state and federal transportation funds.
The mainline that Caltrain service would use--extending its San Francisco to San Jose to Gilroy service south to Salinas--already exists, looping from Gilroy over the hill near Aromas to Pajaro and Castroville then back to Salinas. The goal of that extension is to alleviate commuter congestion on 101 caused by increased number of people who live in Monterey County but work in Santa Clara County.
It''s estimated that the operation cost of extending the service will be $2 million a year. Half of that could be covered by passenger fares--now chalked out at $140 for a monthly San Jose to Salinas pass. The other half would have to come from local sources, although planners are also looking at the county''s allotment of sales tax dollars from state Proposition 42.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people commute north out of the county every day, and the extended service would handle 1,000 commuters a day in two round trips.
One factor working against the new rail service is a 30-percent decline over two years in the number of riders using Caltrain''s existing Gilroy to San Jose service.
Walt Allen, a senior planner at the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC), believes the train could happen.
"Everybody is saying it might be difficult to start service into Monterey County because we''re all experiencing this economic downturn," he says. "But basically we need to get ready for when the economy gets ramped up again."
Other hurdles include negotiations for use of the track with Union Pacific; construction of new train stations and accompanying rail work; and the potential purchase of new trains at $2 million per locomotive and the same for each car.
Environmental and cost studies for the project are expected next December.
The Caltrain extension plan got a boost this week with the $2.5 million appropriation in the 2003 U.S. Transportation Authorization Bill for an intermodal transportation hub in Salinas. Not only would riders be able to travel to San Jose, but further to San Francisco and onto the Capitol Corridor route into Sacramento. Service has been scheduled to begin January 2006.
The other main thrust of current planning is to re-link the Peninsula via train with a revival of the Del Monte Express.
From 1880 until 1971 the Peninsula was graced with a regular train service from San Francisco to Monterey called the Del Monte Express. It was originally installed by the rail barons who founded the Del Monte Hotel (which since the World War II-era has been the Naval Postgraduate School). Although Del Monte ceased to be a hotel, the trains still ran until passenger service was halted in 1971. Amtrak took over the rail and determined that declining ridership made the Monterey Branch Line a money-loser.
A re-creation of the same service is proposed in what''s being called an intercity line linking the Peninsula to San Francisco. An interim station is proposed at Fort Ord, though service into the City of Monterey remains the ultimate goal. The use of the former rail right-of-way for the popular Rec Trail in Monterey means that the train service, if installed, would stop near where Lightfighter Avenue meets Highway 1. A regional transportation hub is foreseen, with bus station and a quick link to what will be soon be burgeoning development at Cal State-Monterey Bay with the upcoming University Village projects. There is also access to state park beaches. "There''s all kinds of stuff that''s going to happen there," Allen says.
There are of course, obstacles. Thirteen miles of track need to be bought from Union Pacific for somewhere near $1 million a mile. The tracks are now in disrepair and need replacing. The Salinas River Bridge needs improvement. Signals need to be upgraded and a fence running along either side of the tracks may also be required.
However, preliminary studies are ongoing and due this fall. A target date for implementation of service is set for May 2006.
Likewise, not everyone is crazy about the idea.
On May 29, the Marina City Council wrote a letter to the TAMC board asking it to prioritize service in the Salinas Valley and keep it from slicing through Marina. The letter, signed by Mayor Jim Perrine, puts the city on record in opposition and states, "...objections are based upon health and safety concerns including: fencing, noise, vibration, the physical division of the city and inherent destruction of bicycle, pedestrian, and vehicle traffic movements, and the unattractiveness of railway."
On October 23, the Monterey City Council is scheduled to hear a presentation on the progress of passenger train service to the city.