The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), California, approved plans yesterday to open a new light rail line by 2015 between Monterey and Marina. A future phase would reach north to Castroville and east to Salinas; both would interface with planned Caltrain and Amtrak service along the corridor.
The route, which extends along the coastline, would also serve the towns of Seaside and Sand City, but the combined population of the affected municipalities totals fewer than 100,000 — meaning that this new line may serve the smallest community of any rail project planned for the United States. With only about 3,500 projected daily riders, the $200 million project won’t reach many people, but the project may well be worth its cost as it will make an already attractive section of the California coastline even more appealing.
If implemented, Monterey Bay would get diesel multiple unit trains every 15 to 30 minutes during the day serving 11 stations between downtown Monterey and Marina. The first phase of the project, which was approved by the transit agency’s board at a meeting yesterday, would cost $130 million, 60% of which TAMC hopes to be covered by the federal government’s Small Start grant program. Trains will run on the already existing Monterey Branch right-of-way, which the county purchased in 2003 for less than $10 million.
Though the cities affected are tiny on the national scale, they are relatively dense, with almost all inhabitants of the area within a mile of the proposed line. In addition, the line’s connection to Cal State’s campus just south of Marina will allow thousands of carless students easier access into downtown Monterey.
The line’s approval comes despite resistance from the Monterey City Council, which wants a more detailed environmental review of the project’s effects. With trains only running four times an hour and little construction required, though, TAMC made the right decision in moving ahead anyway. A BRT system was also being considered, though that option was dropped because of the psychological appeal of rail and the equivalent costs.
The more important advantage of implementing a train system, though, is the potential use of the corridor for future intercity rail service. The county’s transit agency is already planning an extension of Caltrain service from Gilroy to nearby Salinas, which is significantly larger at 150,000 people. The $101 million project, using existing Union Pacific tracks, would allow commuters direct access into San Francisco in three hours or San Jose in 1h45 four times a day; operations are planned for 2012 and are expected to attract around 2,000 daily users. Its funds are mostly accounted for, unlike those of the light rail project. If the light rail line is extended to Castroville as planned, inhabitants of Monterey would have a one-transfer connection to San Francisco.
But the opening of the Montery Branch to new train services would also introduce Monterey, Seaside, and Marina to intercity trains, which could use the same track. If the state of California assembles adequate subsidies, Amtrak could offer trains directly from Monterey to Sacramento or Los Angeles. Either would encourage the development of a statewide rail network; this would be true especially if the line were eventually electrified and California high-speed trains connected via Gilroy.
The light rail service proposed, then, is as much an effort to improve the state’s overall passenger network as anything else, and it opens up long-term possibilities for service expansion in Monterey Bay that won’t be possible unless incremental improvements such as this come to realization.
Image above: Proposed Monterey County Transit, from TAMC