Directors of the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency are interested in the prospect of bringing light rail to the Napa Valley, but are wary of the proposal’s costs.
Rail backer Chuck McMinn gave a presentation before the transit agency’s board of directors last week, and said the transit system would need at least a million riders annually to operate, and a federal loan to pay for the $100 million to $200 million in capital costs.
McMinn asked transit board members to entertain sharing costs with the group, help finalize his business plan and apply to the federal loan program, which has $35 billion to dole out.
But first, McMinn and developer Keith Rogal are spearheading an effort to raise $2 million in seed money from private investors to get their proposal off the ground.
Napa County Supervisor and NCTPA Board Chairman Keith Caldwell said the board has formed a subcommittee devoted to light rail, and it will hear more specifics on the proposal once McMinn has them. After that, it could return to the board for a decision, Caldwell said.
The light rail system would run on the Napa Valley Wine Train’s tracks and would have 20 stops from south Napa to Deer Park Road, north of St. Helena.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel, an NCTPA board member, said she was interested to hear McMinn’s presentation, but said his proposal needs more vetting and public comment.
“Chuck McMinn is a fabulous visionary,” Techel said. “You always have to listen to people like that. At this point, it’s still pretty high-level and it needs some more meat on the bone before we could move forward with it.”
Techel said light rail is an exciting idea, but doesn’t match the service offered by the VINE 10 bus route, which runs from Calistoga to the Vallejo Ferry building.
American Canyon reaction
American Canyon Vice Mayor and NCTPA board member Joan Bennett said she was disappointed that the light rail system wouldn’t offer service to American Canyon.
Union Pacific owns the right of way on the tracks in American Canyon, and McMinn told the board his group is negotiating to extend service south through American Canyon to Vallejo’s Ferry building.
Getting the service to American Canyon would help win over her support, Bennett said.
“It would pique my interest a lot more, but that’s not to say I don’t support the idea in general,” Bennett said. “The idea is good. We really don’t have all the details, in my mind.”
Caldwell questioned how convenient the light rail system would be for residents because they would still need to get to their homes or workplaces from the rail’s stops. If that required an NCTPA shuttle or bus service, that could make it cost-prohibitive for the agency, Caldwell said.
McMinn proposed that the light rail’s ridership would be split evenly between tourists and residents.
“From a tourist standpoint, yeah, it makes sense,” Caldwell said. “I just don’t think the logistics would work for the average commuter. It just doesn’t sound like enough of an incentive to get people out of their cars.”
St. Helena reaction
St. Helena Mayor Del Britton liked the idea after hearing McMinn’s presentation, and said failing to support it now would lead to future regrets.
Britton said that light rail would be effective in reducing traffic congestion and would be appealing to the 60 percent of St. Helena residents who commute out of the city for work and deal with rising gasoline prices.
“The price is going to be so high,” Britton said of future gas prices.
Yountville Mayor John Dunbar said light rail would provide direct benefits to Yountville residents and people looking to visit his town by reducing traffic congestion on Highway 29 and the number of cars parked in town. Still, he said he’s wary of committing the NCTPA working with McMinn’s group without knowing more about how much it would cost.
“I supported the NCTPA taking a closer look at the public benefits, but I still have many questions and concerns about how large a role, especially financially, the NCTPA can and should play in this project,” Dunbar wrote in an email. “We need to more thoroughly evaluate the public benefits to such a rail system and the impacts it would have on our major Highway 29 corridor.”
Calistoga Mayor Jack Gingles said even though the light rail system would stop short of Calistoga, he was intrigued by the idea, but needs more information on costs before fully supporting it.
“We definitely have to look to the future,” Gingles said. “I’m willing to listen. Anything that would help the congestion up and down Highway 29 is good. It’s like shopping in a grocery store when you’re hungry — we’ve got to think smart about it.”