Backers of a proposal to bring light rail to the Napa Valley say they need at least a million riders annually and federal loans to pay $100 million to $200 million in capital costs.
Chuck McMinn of the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition presented his vision of light rail in the valley to the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency’s board of directors Wednesday afternoon.
McMinn asked the agency and Napa Transit Investors, a two-man consortium of him and developer Keith Rogal of Napa Pipe, to create a business plan and help finance its execution.
Board members will create a subcommittee to examine the proposal more closely and determine how much money the group would need.
Napa Transit Investors is still shy of the
$2 million it needs to pay for the first steps of its proposal, but is getting closer, McMinn said Monday. McMinn and Rogal are working under a self-imposed deadline to raise this seed money by the end of January.
“I can’t say we’re there yet,” McMinn said.
The $2 million will pay for completing the business plan, submitting it to the federal loan program — which has $35 billion to dole out — and paying for initial operating costs, according to McMinn’s presentation.
The transit system would run passenger shuttle cars on Napa Valley Wine Train’s tracks from south Napa to Deer Park Road north of
St. Helena. Trains would run every 20 minutes with a capacity of 110 to 225 people, McMinn said. There would be 15 to 20 stations at winery destinations and cities.
McMinn said Wine Train’s tracks will have to be replaced to hold light rail cars, which he has estimated to cost $1 million per mile. The project would also have to add crossing signals at intersecting driveways and roadways.
McMinn said the federal loan program would pay for all of the capital costs with 35-year loans.
“Fortunately there is a funding source available for this,” McMinn said. “There is more than enough capacity for our $100 to $200 million of funds. Money doesn’t get any less expensive than this kind of program.”
To run in the black, a light rail system would require a ridership of 1 million to 1.5 million people annually, McMinn said. Half of the riders are expected to be residents, the others would be tourists, he said.
“The business plan we have to create is a train that has to make money,” McMinn said. “We need a million to a million and a half riders to break even.”
To put that in perspective, McMinn said the Vine 10 bus route that runs from Calistoga to Vallejo has 260,000 riders annually who could ride the light rail system.
McMinn said offering light rail as a means of exploring the Napa Valley would be appealing to wealthy tourists.
“We think we can attract a population ... that is price- insensitive,” McMinn said. “If we make this one of the coolest ways to explore the Napa Valley, they will pay $15 per ride.”
The proposed Napa Valley Vine Trail for pedestrians and bicyclists would run alongside the light rail. Trains would be equipped with bike racks so bicyclists could easily use it, McMinn said.
St. Helena Mayor Del Britton voiced support for the proposal, and said passing on this opportunity would be akin to passing on public ownership of the Wine Train 25 years ago.
“We look back at that now and say, ‘Well, that was really silly,’ ” Britton said. “We could look just as foolish today as we did 25 years ago.”
With no public buyer for former Southern Pacific tracks, they were purchased in the 1980s by Napa Valley Wine Train.
Calistoga City Councilmember Karen Slusser questioned if the light rail would bring enough people to her city, because it would stop short of Calistoga.
McMinn said tourist and commuter buses could ferry light-rail riders into Calistoga, and bicyclists and hikers would also go north of the light rails’ end. Slusser countered that those riders may not be willing to stay overnight in Calistoga.
“We make our money by having people stay overnight in Calistoga,” Slusser said.
McMinn said Napa Transit Investors is having ongoing discussions with Union Pacific, which owns the right of way for tracks south of Kennedy Park, to get the light rail extended south to the Vallejo ferry building.
“We absolutely recognize that the goal of all this is to extend this all the way to the Vallejo ferry,” McMinn said.
McMinn said building light rail would alleviate traffic congestion, as Napa County is predicted to have 30 percent higher traffic volumes by 2030. Widening Highway 29 in choke points such as St. Helena is impossible, but light rail offers an alternative.
“It’s not like we’re going to be able to push cars through faster,” McMinn said.