Little Choo Choo…Squid is a huge fan of public transportation, preferring to emit as little carbon as possible by driving the Squidmobile as little as possible. Squid can often be found riding Monterey-Salinas Transit from the lair to Northridge Mall in Salinas to play Dance Dance Revolution (Squid kills at that game, by the way) or bowl a few games at the recently opened Round 1. Squid also enjoys riding the bus down to Big Sur to watch tourists take their lives in their hands getting selfies while dangling off the side of Bixby Bridge or standing in the middle of Highway 1.
So when Squid heard that the long-promised, long-awaited potential for extending passenger rail service from the city of Monterey to the Castroville terminus had a new backer with big bucks, Squid was downright giddy. As the project wends its way through the vagaries of government financing, it may be decades before it comes to fruition and now a champion from the private sector emerged and could help speed things along? Hells yeah!
Dennis Lowery is that man and he has a Los Gatos-based investment firm called Lowery Capital Partners (the website was due to be completed in April, but isn’t quite done yet). Last year, Lowery sent an unsolicited proposal to the Transportation Agency for Monterey County expressing interest in providing passenger rail service along the Monterey Branch Line. At a meeting in December, he told TAMC employees he had financial backers with deep pockets who were looking to invest about $200 million in the project. “Hells yeah!” thought TAMC, and then asked Lowery to tell them more about his rail experience or the rail experience of his backers.
To which Lowery responded, “They don’t have rail experience, they have a lot of money,” according to TAMC chief Debbie Hale.
TAMC suggested Lowery might want to contract with an outside firm with experience in California rail projects so he could get advice on the hurdles he might face in proposing independent service. At a second meeting he had with TAMC and EMC Planning in February, TAMC suggested he develop a scope of work proposal for what he wanted to accomplish in the near term, such as an analysis of the infrastructure needs, track access rights, environmental impacts and equipment options.
After the meeting, Lowery sent TAMC an NDA—non-disclosure agreement—apparently so he could share some details about the backers and their checkbooks. And in response, TAMC sent him a letter that should go down in the annals of “Great Responses by Public Agencies.” (You know that meme that has the response, “Sir, this is an Arby’s” to someone ranting about politics or the economy? It was a lot like that.)
First, Hale wrote, since TAMC is a governmental agency and subject to the California Public Records Act, they couldn’t promise him confidentiality. For example, if an MOU is presented to TAMC for approval, it’s done at a public meeting, where the public can comment and ask questions.
And Hale writes, “While certain records can be withheld from public disclosure while the parties negotiate, TAMC cannot promise they will never become public.”
Hale also told Lowery that TAMC’s mission is to develop and maintain a multimodal transportation system accessible to all, and any contracted rail service would need to provide an affordable and accessible service to all Monterey County residents and visitors.
And more! TAMC can’t promise Lowery exclusive negotiating rights that could hinder its ongoing efforts to provide passenger service along the Union Pacific Railroad line, it has to receive fair-market value or the equivalent public benefit for any property interests in might be asked to convey and it didn’t have a lot of time to hold anyone’s hand in exploring opportunities for private parties. To that end, TAMC would require any private party to compensate it for consultant costs and staff time in considering any proposal.
“We told him we support transit-oriented development, but to spend time to bring you up to speed we need to know you’re serious and that you know what you’re doing,” Hale tells Squid’s colleague. “He said, ‘I don’t want to spend a bunch of time doing work on this if you’re not interested at all.'”
Hale says that Lowery also met with a public-agency colleague in Santa Cruz to talk about passenger service there, and the colleague assessed it thusly: “It was clear to him he doesn’t have experience in running a rail line and it’s not clear he’s partnering with people who do.”
Adds Hale: “I think perhaps he has the impression that we’re not taking this seriously, and we are, but we need him to show us he’s serious by answering the questions in our letter.”
Squid had some questions for Lowery of Squid’s own, but the man proved to be as elusive as his rail plans: Squid sent a message through the still incomplete Lowery Capital Partners website, but didn’t hear back, and a phone call to a number listed for what appears to be Lowery’s construction wing was answered with a “wrong number” response.
According to Hale, Lowery has had a few meetings with elected officials here and in Santa Cruz County, including TAMC board member and Carmel Mayor Dave Potter. So while Lowery tries to engage the electeds and get them on board, Squid is going to hop on Amazon and send Lowery a miniature train set along with a copy of the Public Records Act in the hopes that will scratch his itch to develop rail service with a public entity involved.