Rail service gets funding boost, city opposition By Andrew Scutro
Thursday, September 4, 2003
Anyone who visits the Amtrak Web site looking for information on its service in California will come across a page for the Coast Starlight, the train that runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. Amtrak sells the ride as "a progressive party that gets you together with a fun crowd and takes you to all the hotspots on the West Coast: Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles."
That''s not quite true: The Coast Starlight never hits the "hotspot" of Monterey. The closest it comes to Monterey is Castroville. No train, passenger or freight, has gone south on the Monterey Branch line from Castroville to the Peninsula since 1994.
Soon, however, unless municipal objections or large-scale money shortages derail a long-running plan to revive passenger rail service to the Peninsula, there might be truth in advertising.
The Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) recently won approval from the California Transportation Committee to spend $9.4 million on the existing but unused railroad tracks between Castroville and Seaside. That funding and millions more could reestablish a passenger rail link to San Francisco that in the old days was known as the Del Monte Express.
The Monterey Branch line is 12.6 miles of track that link the southern half of the Monterey Bay with the mainline, which now runs from Gilroy up through San Jose to San Francisco. (Passenger train service from Gilroy to San Francisco is currently available via Caltrain; TAMC plans to extend that service south from Gilroy to Salinas.)
TAMC is negotiating the details of purchasing the Monterey Branch line with the current owners, Union Pacific. Although some last-minute hitches have arisen, the deal is expected to go through. Union Pacific has filed papers with the federal government to be allowed to abandon the line; approval is pending, but when it comes, the acquisition could go through in weeks.
"We want to make sure we purchase this on terms that work for us," says TAMC''s deputy executive director, Debbie Hale.
TAMC says the Monterey Branch needs some repairs but not total replacement. The Salinas River Bridge, for one, needs a seismic retrofit and some small bridges also need repairs.
Still, $9.4 million does not buy a train. On top of the rail line''s purchase price, the total cost of upgrading the line and building a train station at Fort Ord--both needed before rail service could commence--is estimated at $38 million. (By way of comparison, the plan to build an eight-mile bypass around Prunedale for Highway 101 by 2010 is now estimated to cost $640 million for both right-of-way purchase and road construction.)
An optimistic timetable puts Amtrak rail service to the Peninsula in place by 2009. As now planned, the train would make two round trips a day during the week and three on weekends and holidays. The trip between the Monterey Bay and San Francisco is expected to take less than three hours. Although the train would share the Caltrain mainline track it would not make all the stops available on that line--after Monterey, it would stop in Castroville, San Jose, Milbrae and San Francisco. Times would be coordinated with existing commuter train schedules, and a one-way ticket should cost between $19 and $28. TAMC pegs the yearly operating cost of this new service at $5.7 million, although some of that would be made back through fares as well as through state and federal funding. Amtrak would be the train operator, running equipment leased by TAMC.
Besides federal help, TAMC will decide this spring whether or not to put a county measure on the November 2004 ballot that would create a half-cent sales tax. Five percent of that tax would go to train service, generating $22 million for rail over 20 years, Hale says.
Dave Potter, county supervisor and TAMC Rail Policy Comittee chair, led the negotations to make the purchase. He''s also chair of a statewide council pushing for a viable passenger rail link from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles. He''s confident that the train service will return not only because people in Monterey County want it, but because it''s good for the region and the state.
"This isn''t just a benefit to the Monterey Bay area, but it''s also a benefit to the Bay Area and the South Bay Area," he says.
With the high-priced Prunedale bypass illustrating the costs and problems of building transportation systems, Potter says there''s reason to be confident that passenger rail will return to the Peninsula.
"Monterey County is really pushing ahead in alternative transportation and that''s rare," he says. "We''re not going to pave our way out of this problem."
Before the train can chug into town, it needs a station. There are tentative plans to put an intermodal transit station near Marina''s proposed University Villages project on Fort Ord, close to Lightfigher Avenue. An intermodal station would provide commuter access with a park and ride lot, bus stop and train station.
The city of Marina, however, has voiced opposition to having a train cut through the middle of its town, citing concerns about safety, the noise and vibrations that trains cause, as well as anticipated funding shortfalls.
"We''re working with the city to give them some additional information," Hale says. "It''s really the only highly-urbanized area that the train goes through."
TAMC plans to hold public workshops on the train plan in Marina in October and November.
City councilman Ken Gray is Marina''s representative on the TAMC board; unlike others in the city administration, he''s in favor of passenger rail service. "There''s a lot of benefit for Marina," he says. "A train station could be a center for a lot of economic activity."
With Santa Cruz eying a similar renewal of passenger rail service, Gray hopes both ends of the Bay will one day be linked by rail. "It would be a real asset if there were a few stops in Marina, at Fort Ord and downtown." he suggests. "People could take a train to Aptos and Santa Cruz. It would make people less dependent on automobiles."
Marina Mayor Ila Mettee-McCutchon opposes the planned rail service and says TAMC has not answered her questions. She doesn''t believe there''s economic benefit in a coastal rail line for Marina or the rest of the Peninsula.
"They haven''t changed my mind," she says. "With me they have an uphill battle and they know that."
Eventually, TAMC hopes to be able to extend rail service all the way into Monterey. The recreational trail covers the old rail bed, so re-establishing a train route would involve either relocating the rec trail or putting the train tracks alongside it.
Monterey city councilwoman Ruth Vreeland says the subject has not come up lately before the council, but with TAMC making significant investments, she''ll be putting it on an agenda soon.
A further problem that needs to be considered is where to "park" any train coming into Monterey. Leaving the train for hours on tracks running through the scenic Window on the Bay, not surprisingly, gets a thumbs down from Monterey city officials.
"That''s not acceptable," says Vreeland.