Bringing light rail to the Napa Valley — something that proponents admit will be both a costly and challenging endeavor — looks to have won over some supporters early in the conversation.
Napa Transit Investors, made up of Chuck McMinn of the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition and Keith Rogal of the team wanting to develop Napa Pipe, hosted a public forum in Yountville on Monday night. They made it clear that early public buy-in would be essential for the project’s success.
“Neither of us want to do something if it’s not supported by the community,” McMinn said, before rattling off the latest elements of a light rail proposal that most in attendance signaled they would support.
Using the right of way of the Napa Valley Wine Train, Napa Transit Investors hopes to run small, commuter trains from south Napa to Deer Park Road, just north of St. Helena.
According to the preliminary plan, trains would be expected to leave Napa every 20 minutes, providing both commuters and tourists a frequent and reliable method of getting Upvalley.
The trains, which would be expected to run at 50 mph, would help commuters bypass much of the gridlock on Highway 29 that has become typical of commute hours as well throughout the day during the tourism season, McMinn said.
Each train would be capable of carrying roughly 225 people, and would consist of two diesel-powered cars that both carry passengers and function as an engine.
The potential route, McMinn said, would run a from a proposed station at Streblow Drive in Kennedy Park in Napa to Charles Krug Winery north of St. Helena, stopping roughly 25 times along the way. Stops would consist of major stations, as well as both commuter and winery stops.
While the proposal had support from the vast majority of the 50 or so people who attended the Yountville forum, the project faces significant challenges.
To run trains at up to 50 mph, all 22 miles of Wine Train track would need to be upgraded, meaning both the tracks and potentially the rail ties, would need to be replaced, McMinn said.
The process, which would cost about $1 million per mile of track, could be completed in roughly a month, he added.
Running trains at that speed would also call for increased signalization along the proposed route, where there are 40 to 50 rail crossings without signals.
Napa Transit Investors is proposing to signalize each of those crossings, which McMinn said would cost about $15 million. Additionally, the pair hopes install GPS signaling on each of the trains for added passenger safety, an effort that will add another $7 million to the project’s total.
Despite roughly $44 million being budget on signalization and track improvements alone, McMinn said that the effort should still be cheaper than the $216 million price tag suggested by the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency’s study in 2003.
That proposal would have seen rail service connecting Calistoga to the ferry building in Vallejo, with additional branches running through Jameson Canyon to Suisun City.
In addition to price, several people at Monday’s meetings expressed concern over how the light rail system would connect passengers to other forms of public transit, or whether riders would be able to get from the station to their destination efficiently enough to make them want to leave their cars at home.
While noting that the trains would be stopping at NCTPA’s planned Soscol Gateway Transit Center where VINE buses would gather, McMinn said that other options, like shuttle services, would be addressed as a need developed.
At Monday’s meeting, the possible connection between the light rail proposal and Napa Pipe, the controversial 2,580-home, mixed-used development being proposed by Rogal, was discussed.
With the Wine Train’s right of way stopping just shy of the Napa Pipe site, and Union Pacific, which owns the tracks south of Kennedy Park, showing little interest in having passenger rail running on its track, Rogal said his personal involvement in both Napa Transit Investors and Napa Pipe was the only real tie between the two projects.
“That’s really the only connection,” Rogal said. “There’s no physical connection and there’s no investment connection.”
Ridership projections don’t take into account any influx in riders that may come from the Napa Pipe proposal, McMinn said, adding that the system could break even without them.
Breaking even, however, would require significant subsidy, McMinn said, noting that the roughly $2 million a year that NCTPA uses for VINE routes 10 and 29 might go much further if directed toward the rail proposal.
“We could easily carry twice the number of people for the same $2 million,” he said.
Before the pair can begin making real progress on the rail proposal, McMinn hopes to secure roughly $2 million in investments to help complete a business plan, obtain governmental approval and identify various subsidy options.
On Tuesday, McMinn said he had located roughly half that amount and was having success with a wide variety of potential investors.
“We’re not there yet in terms of the $2 million, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable,” he said.