– TAMC chooses light rail for rapid transit line

ED. Yet another city chooses light rail over heavy rail SkyTrain locomotives.  Why does Campbell only fund heavy rail?

California, USA
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By JIM JOHNSON
Herald Salinas Bureau

Rejecting the Monterey City Council’s request for more extensive environmental study, local transportation officials chose light rail Wednesday as the preferred alternative for a proposed rapid transit line from the Peninsula to Castroville.
Transportation Agency for Monterey County directors decided to focus on light rail for the environmental review of the proposed Monterey Branch Line. They agreed to include a “visual simulation” of the proposed route and to evaluate alternatives for where it would end in Monterey.

On Tuesday, the Monterey council said it wanted TAMC to study light rail and bus rapid transit equally during environmental reviews.

But transportation agency staff members said that would cost an additional $1 million. Doing just the “visual simulation” and other less extensive work would only cost up to $40,000, they said.

The proposed project, which is intended to reduce traffic on Highway 1, includes a rapid transit line running along an old rail route purchased by the agency in 2003. The first phase, which would cost between $115 million and $129 million, would operate six trains running every 15 to 30 minutes between Monterey’s Portola Plaza and Marina Green with 11 stops along the way. It’s expected to be completed by 2015. Later, the line would stretch to Castroville.

Last month, TAMC directors delayed choosing their preferred alternative after former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert expressed concern that the city had not officially weighed in on the proposal. Albert said the transit line could affect Window on the Bay Park and downtown Monterey.

Choosing a preferred alternative is necessary for environmental reviews and to seek federal funding for the transit line.

At Wednesday’s meeting, City Councilman Frank Sollecito, chairman of the TAMC board, said Monterey’s request was strictly a “political thing” based on residents’ concerns about the project’s proximity to Window on the Bay. He said he was convinced light rail represented the “smallest footprint.”

County Supervisor Dave Potter called the light rail alternative a “better long-term investment,” which would better meld with the state’s move toward rail travel.

Potter said he understood concerns about the project’s impact, but the environmental review and project consideration process would address many questions.

“There’s an awful lot of next-step questions that will be answered,” Potter said.

County Supervisor Lou Calcagno said he preferred to have agreement among the Peninsula’s cities before proceeding with the project. But Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado said there likely would never be more agreement than there is now. And Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio warned against “analysis paralysis.”

Rubio lauded the light rail alternative as the “future” of the region’s transportation system. He said the visual simulation would demonstrate its benefits and impacts.

County Supervisor Jane Parker said she would support either alternative, though she suggested a bus system would more effectively serve commuters from Salinas to Carmel and offer more funding flexibility in a difficult economy.

Del Rey Oaks Mayor Jerry Edelen questioned the project’s future if Monterey were to reject a route through Window on the Bay.

TAMC staff member Kirsten Hoschouer said the route could end at the Naval Postgraduate School or some other site short of the park. But TAMC Executive Director Debbie Hale said that would raise concerns about its ability to attract full ridership.

TAMC staff members said the light rail alternative would cost a little more to construct and operate but would have more capacity — 100 passengers per train versus 60 for buses — and be more convenient for bicyclists and disabled riders.

Light rail would also appeal more to so-called “choice” riders and would more effectively support transit-oriented development, staff members said.

Both light rail and rapid-transit buses would rely on the same fare systems, but staff members said a sales tax might be needed to offset operating costs for the transit line.

Edelen noted that local transportation sales taxes have a history of failure among voters, and he worried about spending transportation dollars on a system that could end up drawing fewer passengers than expected.

Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or jjohnson@montereyherald.com.

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