Government / Politics

Commuter trains coming to Hollister. Really?

School district superintendent's idea for bus yard on Leatherback site is derailed because city is entertaining the idea of commuter train service downtown.

When San Benito County High School Superintendent Shawn Tannenbaum got up to speak to the Hollister City Council March 19 about the district’s desire to secure the plot of land where the Leatherback industrial site on McCray Street had been located, he most likely did not expect to get derailed by Mayor Ignacio Velazquez.

Tannenbaum gave a presentation that included a colorful map of the ever-expanding school campus along with an explanation of its growth and the need to have an off-campus site for its school buses. In his mind, the curiously shaped property that looks like two islands connected by a bridge, might have seemed the ideal location for the bus terminal.

Velazquez, though, brought up another use that may come as a surprise to many residents—a passenger train station.

This is no April Fool's joke.

The city, or at least the mayor and the Council of San Benito County Governments (COG), are seriously looking into the possibility of bringing rail passenger service to Hollister. COG has even secured a $150,000 state grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine if it’s even possible.

Tannenbaum may have had an inkling the conversation wasn’t going his way when the mayor’s first question after the presentation was if he had considered sharing the city’s yard on the other side of town where it keeps its vehicles, which brought a bit of laughter from those in the room because they seemed to know what was coming.

“I’ve talked about this many times,” Velazquez began. “Why I’m asking is because eventually in this area [Leatherback] we’re hoping to get train service. Right now, it kind of makes sense [for school buses], but long-term, is it going to hurt us if we do get the rail service and we don’t have parking?”

Council member Ray Friend wondered if a bus yard at the Leatherback site would cause excessive traffic through the nearby residential area. Tannenbaum told Friend bus drivers had made a dry run through the neighborhood to “see if it was palatable for the city,” and he thought it the most viable site compared to other properties. Friend brought up the new Hollister Farms shopping center that would be breaking ground nearby, which he said would be impacting traffic along McCray Street.

“Whoever gets built out first is the one that’s going to have control of McCray Street,” he said. Even so, Friend appeared to favor the bus yard. “I think this is an excellent way for the city to use this property.”

Council member Jim Gillio said even though he is in favor of partnering with the school district to come up with a solution over the buses, he cautioned moving forward with the Leatherback proposal because the property is located in the core of the city. He said it might be a better idea for the school district to consider another location because of future growth possibilities for the city.

Tannenbaum responded that he was willing to consider other options, but cautioned that the district will only continue to grow and there needs to be a long-term vision that needs to begin immediately. Council member Karson Klauer asked Soren Diaz, the city attorney, if there was a timeline for disposing of the Leatherback property. Diaz wasn’t able to provide an answer.

“I’m glad that somebody wants to do something with the property because we’ve talked about it ever since I’ve been on the council,” Klauer said. “Is this the best option? I don’t know. But right now it’s the only option that anybody’s come up with.”

Klauer said it was a good idea to not only keep working with the school district on a solution, but to also see what other entities might make the city an offer.

“The RDA [Resource Development Agency] is into this $6 or $7 million and that’s some expensive dirt just to be sitting there,” Klauer said. “Unfortunately, it’s not getting any cheaper to keep it as dirt. In a perfect world, a rail station would be amazing. I don’t know how it’s going to work. A lot of money has been poured into this property and, in my eyes, the value has only gone down. I don’t want to make a bad decision now and 30 years from now it’s still like this.”

Marty Richman was the only member of the public who ventured to speak on the topic and he brought up a point that everyone else seemed to miss about the proposed budget for the bus yard. He wondered why there was no dollar figure for the cost of the land.

“Did I miss it?” he said with a laugh. “I noticed the line for the value of the property. Maybe he [Tannenbaum] thought it was going to be donated.”

“We purposefully left that off,” Tannenbaum answered Richman. “We have no idea of the cost it will add. You asked an excellent question. Would this be funded out of Measure G or Measure U? It would not.”

Tannenbaum apparently did think the city might donate the land, according to Bill Avera, city manager. Avera also verified that COG is conducting a feasibility study for a passenger rail station to be located at one of two possible locations, either near the Leatherback property or on the land near Gateway Drive, by Tiffany Ford.

Avera said there are a number of engineering and city street layout issues to consider, but he sounded hopeful because in addition to passenger service, he said Caltrain was also looking at possibly building a railyard adjacent to the Leatherback site. He said a previous feasibility study was conducted about 20 years ago (it was in 2000), but it was determined that Hollister did not have the ridership necessary to make it happen.

He said he had long had the impression that the tracks were in good enough condition for freight trains, but might need some upgrades for passenger trains. Another potential roadblock, he said, might be the developers of El Rancho San Benito, located along Highway 25, who own the property that the former Union Pacific tracks cross.

In 2005, DMB, an Arizona-based developer, was planning on building a self-contained, mini-city called El Rancho San Benito west of Highway 25 near the border with Santa Clara County. According to Avera, the developers were also planning on running a light-rail train between the development and Hollister. Coincidentally, at the March 20 board of supervisor meeting, an apparently related agenda item that was discussed concerned a reimbursement agreement with Bristol SB LLC, a Nevada-registered company, for initial project review costs related to a future development of several thousand homes on the same land.

Avera couldn’t confirm Klauer’s comment that the Leatherback land had devalued, but he did say the city had expended upwards of $3 million in cleaning it up and that its location, physical shape, as well as it is only about seven acres, makes it undesirable for development.

“There’s not a lot of people pounding down the door to get that piece of property, unless they get it for basically nothing,” he said. “That’s why when RDA was around people wanted it because it would be valued at zero.”

Avera said from the city’s perspective McCray Street is a commercial corridor, and now that there will be a shopping center at one end, with a theater and shops a short distance away, to stick a bus yard in the middle would not be conducive to a well-planned community.

“Once the school district goes there it will be there forever,” he said. “And they want it for free. Hollister spent a bunch of money to get it and rehab it. The idea has always been to have an income-generating use. If you’re going to give it to the school district you’re not getting that.”

Mary Gilbert, executive director of COG, confirmed that the organization conducted a feasibility study in 2000, but at the time determined there was not enough potential ridership to support a depot in Hollister. She said the new $150,000 state grant from SB-1 funds will be used to determine if enough has changed in 18 years to warrant rail service to the city.

“The original study [in 2000] did determine probably the best location would be in the downtown area,” she said.

According to a September COG staff report, the $150,000 grant comes with an 11.47 percent in-kind or cash match from the Local Transportation Authority (LTA). The report also stated that because 48.9 percent of employed residents living in San Benito County commute on Highway 25, and it’s anticipated that number will only increase, the LTA board requested Aug. 2016 that a study be conducted on the possibility of creating a county express commuter rail service to Gilroy in order to relieve the congestion. In Aug. 2017, it was recommended that an analysis be made of public transit network expansion projects for congestion relief of the Highway 25 corridor, including a commuter rail.

Gilbert said the study will not begin before this summer.

According to a plaque that used to be on the building that once served as the Hollister Depot:  "The Tres Pinos Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad began train service to Hollister on July 13, 1871. Train service was a main reason the population grew from 300 in 1870 to over 2000 in 1873. Besides passenger service, major commodities shipped have been included hay, produce and beer. The final passenger excursion occurred on October 30, 1955. The depot, originally constructed in the late 1860's, was fully restored by the Rodriguez family in 1991."

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]