Now that its plans to build a new headquarters at the Whispering Oaks business park are under the proverbial bus, Monterey-Salinas Transit is unsure which route to take.
MST’s current facilities are so cramped, the agency can barely operate, let alone grow, MST General Manager/CEO Carl Sedoryk explained in a March 28 letter to the county Board of Supervisors. But much as it needs the space, the transit agency doesn’t have any money for more planning and design work.
Now, MST is noodling whether to stick with its 15-year-old ambitions to build a centralized facility on the former Fort Ord, look for a similar-sized parcel elsewhere, or spread several smaller facilities across the Peninsula, Salinas and South County.
On Feb. 14, facing intense public opposition, the County Board of Supervisors reversed its earlier approvals of the 58-acre Whispering Oaks project, which included 24 acres for MST’s new hub. Many of the conservationists who opposed Whispering Oaks stressed their general support for MST, and suggested it build instead on blighted land at the Marina Airport.
But a study prepared for MST by Denise Duffy & Associates in December 2011 finds even more sensitive habitat at the airport site than at the Whispering Oaks parcel or a third alternative, MST-owned property on 8th Avenue and Gigling Road.
Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado, who also happens to be a Bureau of Land Management expert in Fort Ord habitat, thinks that’s B.S. The airport site is highly disturbed and partially paved over, he says: “Our staff is convinced it’s a better site.”
Another option is UC-Santa Cruz’s Monterey Bay Education, Science and Technology Center in Marina, which has languished despite valuable existing infrastructure like gutters, sidewalks and water pipes. “It’s just crying out [for a developer],” Delgado says.
Both the city of Marina and UC MBEST have initiated talks with MST; Sedoryk says the cities of Seaside, Salinas, Del Rey Oaks and Soledad have also made inquiries. “There are a lot of competing interests at this point,” he says. “The challenge is that we just don’t have funding to conduct further environmental or planning work.”
When the supes decertified the Whispering Oaks environmental impact report, Sedoryk explains, MST had to shift its related expenses from its capital fund to its operating fund – the pot that pays for buses, drivers and fuel. Doubling the agency’s pain, Congress has repeatedly tabled re-authorization of federal transportation funding that accounts for more than one-quarter of MST’s annual budget.
MST and supes’ subcommittees are working to square the $800,000-plus MST paid the county for Whispering Oaks-related fees. “I’m pretty certain we’ll get part of it back,” Sedoryk says.
The financial uncertainties put MST in an awkward place. On the one hand, Sedoryk says, it makes sense to pause and develop a focused vision for expansion. But the agency might lose even more funding if it stalls too long.
MST is still hoping to hang on to $30 million in federal loans for its new hub. Last month, Sedoryk met with U.S. Department of Transportation staff in Washington, D.C. to ask for mercy on a Dec. 31 deadline. He hopes quarterly progress updates will keep them from yanking the competitive funding.
“They’re disappointed we didn’t make the EIR stick,” he says. “They would still like to see us make this project work, but there is only so much flexibility they will be able to offer.”