“The most important elections are local elections.”
We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth emphasizing. Local elections typically seat the decision makers for things like whether or not our streets have sidewalks and bike lanes, whether or not our public transportation service is strong enough to actually be useful, and which developments are approved and rejected.
In Santa Cruz County specifically, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) controls the budget and project list for all the transportation projects in the County, from roads to public transportation to bike infrastructure and walking paths. Surprisingly, membership on the RTC is not representative of the county population. Seats on the RTC are granted to all the elected County Supervisors and to one City Council member from each city. In addition, each city gets one seat on the METRO board, and three METRO board members get seats on the RTC. A Cabrillo College trustee also gets a seat on the METRO board and so is eligible for appointment from the METRO to the RTC.
What’s at Stake
As a 501(c)(3) organization we don’t endorse candidates, but we are committed to discovering candidate positions and sharing them with the community. As we’ve seen over the past two years, even one RTC commissioner can have a dramatic impact on which projects get funded and built and which are killed or delayed. The Rail & Trial project enjoys enormous popularity with the people of Santa Cruz County, but that does not guarantee individual commissioners will support it. Whoever wins the local races this November will have a direct impact on the Rail & Trail and on all of the city and county transportation projects.
Which Seats are Coming Up
This November, voters will decide city council appointments in Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville. There is also a Board of Supervisors runoff election in District 4 (which is most of Watsonville) and in District 3 (which covers the City of Santa Cruz, Davenport, Bonny Doon and the area between Empire Grade and the coastline from Waddell Creek). We reached out to every candidate with our survey and have provided their responses for you on our website here. You can also click here to see the community conversation on Reddit about the candidate survey responses.
Moving Forward with Rail Planning
In June, your support for expanding our transportation system to include both a trail AND electric rail resulted in a landslide defeat of the ‘Greenway’ trail only plan.
On August 4th 2022, thanks to your support the RTC voted to move forward with the next step to bringing rail service to Santa Cruz County! This is a historic moment! The Commissioners have unanimously approved RTC Staff to issue a RFP to start the Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation for electric light rail service on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. The rest of the Rail Trail planning will be completed in this step as well. This brings all 32 miles of the Coastal Rail Trail into design and construction mode. A clear win for both the Rail and the Trail projects!
In brief, up until now, the RTC has only studied whether or not to implement rail transit. Today, the RTC took the first step in building our rail transit system.
What Can We Expect Next for Implementing Rail Service?
The first planning and design task is developing the Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation.
We took a deep dive into the Draft TCAA Business Plan to see what had been previously proposed for this step. Wondering where will the rail stops be? Want to know how long the commute will be and how often trains will come? All these decisions and so much more are a necessary part of this process. Click here to read our blog post.
Trail Planning Included in New Rail Project
The Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation for the rail transit project will now also include designing Coastal Rail Trail segments 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20, from Rio Del Mar Boulevard to Pajaro. This means that the full 32-mile Coastal Rail Trail is now in progress.
Have you ever wanted to know ‘where will my rail stop be?’ or ‘How often will the trains run?’ or even ‘Who is going to be in charge of the rail system?’ To move forward with the rail project, the RTC needs to answer these kinds of questions. That means doing a Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation project. This large and detailed study and design project explores the nitty gritty of how the rail service would be built and how it would work.
The RTC staff previously shared a discussion of the Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation project as part of the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis and Rail Network Integration Business Plan (‘Rail Business Plan’). In a nutshell, the project includes doing a detailed study of the existing rail infrastructure, developing initial plans for design, operation, and governance of the electric rail service, and doing full environmental studies. The last delivery from the project would be a Final Environmental Impact Report which would include all of the design plans, all the environmental studies, and a few other bits and pieces.
Heart of the Project: Design, Operation, and Governance
Creating the initial design, operation and governance plans gives the starting place for deciding what rail service will actually look like in Santa Cruz County. We anticipate there will be lots of opportunities for public comments as the plans are developed! If you would like to be kept informed, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Initial Conceptual Design
Design covers things like station location, train speeds, vehicle types, travel times, and ridership. It includes assessing first and last mile solutions to provide passenger rail users the ability to get to and from the rail stations. Initial design also helps identify which infrastructure investments, such as track curve realignment or upgraded bridges, yield the most benefits.
Initial Operating Plan
An operating plan includes the headways (how often trains run), passing times (when trains meet and pass at siding locations), and span of service (starting and ending service times). Part of the operating plan includes looking at rail vehicle types and ruling out those which cannot provide a reasonable running time on the corridor. The operating plan also includes how local rail service will be integrated with both the local bus service and the regional rail service.
Governance Strategy Recommendation
The Governance model will determine who runs the rail system. The TCAA Business Plan includes an explanation of different possible governance models (such as Public Private Partnerships, as just one of several possibilities.) Developing a governance recommendation will involve state, regional, and local agency communication, coordination, and analysis. Agencies such as Caltrans, the Transit Agency of Monterey County, the Santa Cruz METRO, and the Santa Cruz RTC would all participate.
A California Environmental Quality Act Environmental Impact Report (CEQA EIR) and National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Impact Statement (NEPA EIS) will be developed to comply with federal and state guidelines and funding requirements. These studies will also determine the environmental mitigation that will be part of the project. Mitigation can include simple actions like preventing construction runoff from entering the watershed, and larger efforts such as wildlife habitat restoration that might even be located elsewhere in the county, far from the tracks. The environmental review process also provides lots of opportunities for the public to give feedback on the proposed project.
At the end of the process, the information prepared in all the previous steps is used to prepare the full environmental review, documentation, and preliminary design documentation to meet federal and state requirements. The final EIR is built from the environmental studies, a ‘30% Preliminary Design Document’ developed using the Initial Design, Operation, and Governance Plans, and the cost estimates.
See page 5.2 of the TCAA & RNIS Business Plan for more details on what will likely be included in the Preliminary Engineering and Environmental Documentation.
The Inside Track
Do you want to stay updated as the design unfolds? Want to know when you can make your voice heard about design details or project impacts? Friends of the Rail & Trail will keep you updated and in the know! Stay on the Inside Track and make sure you’re signed up for our emails.
On June 7 2022, the Santa Cruz County electorate came together with an outpouring of support for keeping the current plan to have both rail and trail, including implementing light rail transit on the Santa Cruz Branch Line. The landslide opposing Measure D made it clear that the Rail & Trail project isn’t controversial. Rather, it is an extraordinarily popular unifying vision for a transportation corridor that includes both rail and trail: a transportation corridor that will provide a better quality of life for all of the county residents and visitors. Here are the unofficial election results broken down by Supervisorial District.
The People Have Spoken and They Want Rail & Trail
The voters in every district have sent a clear message to all of our elected and appointed officials that Santa Cruz County wants to continue with the Rail & Trail vision that has guided years of studies, design, and public process.
Our strength is grounded in our ability to work together. We have come together in an amazing coalition across Santa Cruz County that will continue to advocate for our future. No matter our differences, most of us want pretty similar things. We want to live in a thriving community that provides freedom of movement and opportunity for everyone to get around safely, creates safe and healthy neighborhoods, and gets everyone home on time for dinner. Together we can bring this vision to life.
What's Next for Light Rail Transit?
The dramatic results at ballot box have created a clear mandate for passenger rail. Now that our elected officials know that rail transit enjoys just as much support from the community as the Coastal Rail Trail, It’s time to move this project forward!
Many of us have written to the RTC in the past 12 months to encourage them to oppose abandonment and railbanking and to let them know that we want to move forward with both Rail & Trail. If you wrote your commissioner, did you hear back? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.
Fortunately, it’s a good time to invest in rail transportation in the USA.
Counties around the country are funding rail line upgrades with Federal Rail Grants. The CRISI funds in the above example are only one source of funding that is available. We have an opportunity in front of us with the upcoming State Transportation Improvement Program/TCEP, which is a great source for our rail line because two Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line upgrade projects are already on the State's eligible project list. This summer we will be pushing to see real progress towards light rail service as well as continued progress on the trail. Stay tuned and join us as we continue our advocacy work towards these goals!
Coastal Rail Trail Progress
As the founding organization advocating for the Coastal Rail Trail, we are always delighted to see progress on our vision for a 32-mile trail spanning the length of the county. Here are the latest progress updates on segments of the trail that run through some of our most densely populated areas.
California Street to the Boardwalk
The first phase of Coastal Rail Trail Segment 7 has been open between Natural Bridges and Bay Street on the Westside of Santa Cruz since Fall of 2020. The trail is a hit with residents and visitors alike, and people of all ages can be seen walking, bicycling, and skating on the trail at all times of day. Now, we’re delighted to report that the City of Santa Cruz is beginning construction of Segment 7 Phase II this summer.
The trail will be 12-16 feet wide and go from the corner of Bay and California to the roundabout at the foot of the wharf. Like all of the Coastal Rail Trail, it is designed for walkers and bicyclists of all ages and abilities. We are excited for this alternative route to heavily trafficked Laurel Street and steep Beach Hill. This new trail running alongside the tracks behind Neary Lagoon will provide safer and easier active transportation connections between the beach area and the Westside, and will connect to downtown Santa Cruz via the Beach Street Bike Path and the San Lorenzo River Path. To see info on all the Rail Trail segments in the City of Santa Cruz click here.
17th Ave to State Park Drive
Several weeks ago I was pleased to send a letter on behalf of the Friends of the Rail & Trail officially endorsing a County grant application to fund Coastal Rail Trail Segments 10 and 11. We are optimistic that the California Active Transportation Program grant committee will approve funding for this section of the Rail Trail, a 4.5-mile stretch that will connect 17th Avenue in Live Oak to the Seacliff neighborhood in Aptos. It will also connect 10 schools, 18 parks, 13 public beaches, 2 community centers, commercial zones and some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the county. Click here to check out the maps and plans.
As always, it’s such an honor to be a part of this community. Thank you for bringing that extra spark to our community and helping to make Santa Cruz County such a wonderful place to be!
All the Best,
Board Chair, Friends of the Rail & Trail
Last Updated: 9/5/2022
In 2002, a small group of citizen activists recognized the potential for the Santa Cruz Branch Rail line, which runs from Davenport to Pajaro Junction in Watsonville, to be the foundation of a new transportation project capable of changing the way that Santa Cruz County moves. The vision was for a light rail service along the coast from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, combined with a 32-mile bike and pedestrian trail from Watsonville to Davenport. This project would be a game changer, especially if it were integrated with bike, pedestrian, and bus connections. It would open up easy car-optional cross-county transportation for residents and visitors of all ages, abilities, and income levels.
Friends of the Rail & Trail Founded
Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail was established as a nonprofit in 2002. Funded by the local community and powered by hundreds of ordinary citizen volunteers, we have embraced the mission of seeing the combined rail and trail project come to life. In 2012 the project achieved a huge milestone when the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission purchased the rail corridor.
Over the years the Rail & Trail project has gone through all the required public process of planning, studies, and community input. All of the studies used the metrics of Equity, the Environment, and Economics, and all have continued to find that the best use of the rail corridor is a trail in combination with transit. The more recent studies have concluded that the transit type should be electric passenger rail.
In 2014, several mid-county residents formed a series of groups under different names, with the goal of removing the railroad tracks and stopping rail transit. Despite this, the project continues to enjoy strong county-wide support.
1Unified Corridor Investment Study and Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis
Scroll down to see a timeline of everything that's happened so far with the Rail & Trail project!
1987 - METRO initiates fixed-guideway studies including Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line (SCBRL), as well as a "Corridor Refinement Study” of the SCBRL.
1990 - CA Proposition 116 - Rail Bonds. Passes statewide with 60% approval in Santa Cruz County allocating $11M for Santa Cruz passenger rail.
1995-99 - Major Transportation Investment Study (MTIS) - the second major study of passenger rail transit on the SCBRL
1996 - Three Passenger Rail Demonstration Events
Return of the SunTan Special, the Coast Cruzer, and the First Night Trolley.
1998 - People Power starts advocating for the Rail Trail.
2001 - $21M of State Funding appropriated for purchase of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line:
• $11M from Proposition 116 Rail Bonds (1990).
• $10M from the 2000 State Transportation Improvement Program (state and federal gas taxes.)
2002 - Friends of the Rail & Trail established as part of People Power
FORT advocates to the RTC to apply for Proposition 116 funds to purchase the rail line, with the goal of improving mobility options in Santa Cruz County by providing a public trail for active transportation alongside future passenger rail service,
2002 - RTC changes its enabling legislation to accommodate SCBRL ownership and passenger rail development.
2006 - Rail+Trail Symposium
Friends of the Rail & Trail and People Power host over 200 participants at a symposium on Rail and Trail with experts from around the US in Dec. 2006 at Jade St. Park.
2008 - FORT letter writing campaign advocating for the RTC commissioners to vote in favor of acquiring the rail line.
2009 - RTC decides to move forward with the effort to acquire the rail corridor. FORT leads the campaign to get the California Transportation Commission (CTC) to approve a grant from Prop. 116 funds to help purchase the line.
June 2010 - California Transportation Commission approves Proposition 116 grant application for RTC's acquisition of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line at the June 2010 session in Sacramento, facilitated by Assemblymember Mark Stone and attended by 30-40 people from FORT and other proponents.
2012 - Santa Cruz County RTC acquires the SCBRL from Union Pacific for $14.2M
• Escrow closes on Oct. 12 placing title of the 32-mile SCBRL into public ownership.
• Purchase came with the public commitment to facilitate passenger and freight service, as well as creating a multi-use bicycle and pedestrian trail.
2014 - Rail Trail Plan and Environmental Impact Report finished
• Formally known as the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network Master Plan (MBSST)
• The MBSST explains and illustrates the key details needed to construct the Rail Trail adjacent to the existing 32 mile rail line from Davenport to Watsonville
• MBSST approved by every government entity with jurisdiction including the Transportation Commission, the County, the Coastal Commission, and the cities of Watsonville, Capitola and Santa Cruz
• A key objective included in the MBSST is Policy 1.2.4 - "Develop trails in such a way so that future rail transit services along the corridor are not precluded."
2014 - ‘Aptos Rail-Trail Investor Group’ formed
Requests the RTC allow them to purchase the rail corridor to demolish the rail infrastructure in favor of a trail-only plan. https://www.sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/2014-09-04-rtc-handouts.pdf
2014 - City of Watsonville City Council
Unanimously adopts a resolution of support for the MBSST Rail Trail Master Plan and preservation of the rail for sustainable long-range transportation.
2015 - City of Santa Cruz City Council
Unanimously adopts a resolution of support for the Rail Trail Master Plan and preservation of the rail option for sustainable long-range transportation planning.
2015 - RTC completes Rail Transit Feasibility Study
Study provides a high level conceptual analysis of several future passenger rail transit scenarios and road map laying out next steps needed for implementation of rail service.
2016 - Measure D Passes
• A super majority of Santa Cruz County voters pass a 30 year, half cent sales tax measure to fund transportation improvements.
• The measure allocated 25% of all funds raised to be used on Rail & Trail projects (8% Rail and 17% Trail) It is expected to generate approximately $700M total over the 30 years with $56M for rail and $119M for trail.
2016 - the ‘Great Santa Cruz Trail Study Group’ formed
• The GSCTSG is funded by wealthy anti-transit activists in Santa Cruz County.
• Their goal is to promote the idea of removing the tracks in favor of a super wide 3 lane trail with a separate lane for powered vehicles.
The GSCTSG publishes "Great Santa Cruz Trail 2016”
Marketing piece promoting the advantages of "trail-only" use of the rail corridor. Fails to include any information on funding or environmental impacts.
2016 - RTC Staff Report on Options for Use of the Rail Corridor
Analyzes step-by-step process, approximate costs and general timeline for three possible uses of the rail corridor:
• Rail with Trail
• Bus Rapid Transit
Finds that the trail-only concept would incur large unknown costs and long delays to redo the EIR and Master Plan for the trail.
2017 - ‘Great Santa Cruz Trail’ renames itself and incorporates as ‘Greenway’
Small but influential group of wealthy interests continues to promote a concept for demolishing the tracks and removing public transit from the rail corridor.
2019 - Unified Corridor Investment Study (UCIS)
The RTC completes a multi-year study to select transportation investments that will make the best use of Highway 1, Soquel Avenue/Soquel Drive/ Freedom Boulevard, and the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. The study’s goals focus on developing a sustainable and well-integrated transportation system while maximizing benefits in terms of efficient mobility, health and equity, the natural environment, and economic vitality.
2019 - UCIS Evaluates 4 Scenarios for rail corridor:
• Trail Only
• Passenger Rail with Trail
• Bus Rapid Transit on Corridor with Trail & Freight Rail limited to Watsonville
• Passenger & Freight Rail with Trail
2019 - UCIS Results
The UCIS recommended that the preferred scenario for the rail corridor include the bike and pedestrian trail, high-capacity public transit service, and maintaining freight rail service. The Trail-Only scenario scored poorly on most measures and was rejected.
December 2020 - Westside Rail Trail Opens!
July 2021 - Watsonville Rail Trail Opens!
2021 - Transit Corridor Alternative Analysis (TCAA)
Following the UCIS recommendation for some kind of high-capacity public transit on the rail corridor, this study was designed to assess all public transit options for the rail right-of-way using the metrics of Equity, Environment, and Economy.
The study used a performance measure analysis as well as gathering public input from RTC advisory committees, partner agencies, community organizations, stakeholders, and members of the public.
• 18 different transit technology platforms were compared in the first round. After the initial review of 18, in Milestone 2 the study focused on the four best-performing alternatives:
• Electric Light Rail Transit
• Electric Commuter Rail Transit
• Bus Rapid Transit on Corridor
• Autonomous Road Train
2021 - TCAA Outcome is Rail Transit
The TCAA final recommendation chose Electric Passenger Rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative. Because rail technology is changing rapidly with more vehicle types coming on the market yearly, the TCAA recommended choosing a specific vehicle in the next planning stage.
April 2021 - Draft Business Plan Finished
After acceptance of the TCAA, the next step was the development of a 25-year strategic business plan to serve as a guiding document for funding and implementation of the Locally Preferred Alternative. At the April RTC meeting the RTC staff presented the draft Business Plan for electric passenger rail on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line (SCBRL) and received public input.
April 2021 - RTC Deadlocked Vote on the Draft Business Plan
• The RTC motion to accept the business plan and seek funding for an environmental document failed on a 6-6 vote, freezing progress on rail planning.
• The RTC commissioners who voted against accepting the business plan were Koenig (former Executive Director of Greenway) Bertrand, Johnson, McPherson, Petersen, and Alternate Mulhearn.
2021 - Coast Futura Demonstration
• In October, a clean clean, quiet, zero-emission streetcar manufactured in CA by Tig-M provided hourly service on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line in Watsonville and in Santa Cruz.
• The demonstration included 2100 riders, 433 miles traveled, and over 120 volunteers.
• Sponsors include The City of Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp, Central Coast Community Energy, Lookout Santa Cruz, and Graniterock.
2022 - Greenway Ballot Initiative
Greenway funded a deceptive local ballot measure to override our public process and create a trail-only plan. 2022 Measure D "Greenway" pretended to preserve rail for the future and speed trail progress but actually would have stripped all rail transit language from the County’s 20 Year General Plan for the rail corridor and delayed new trail construction progress for 8 or more years to redo EIR studies and seek new funding sources.
2022 - Defeated Measure D ballot initiative
In June, voters choose to vote against Measure D, leading to a landslide victory for rail & trail in Santa Cruz County
2022 - RTC Approves Electric Rail
On August 4th 2022, thanks to your support the RTC voted to move forward with the next step to bringing rail service to Santa Cruz County.
TRANSDEF: County Analysis Fails to Address Greenway Harms
The Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, known as TRANSDEF, is a non-profit environmental organization created by transit activists to advocate for better solutions to transportation, land use and air quality problems in the San Francisco Bay Area. TRANSDEF promotes cost-effective transit, Smart Growth, and market-based pricing as fiscally and environmentally preferable responses to traffic congestion. These strategies represent a major departure from the prevailing policy climate of suburban sprawl, ever-widening highways and overwhelming dependence on the private automobile. TRANSDEF is especially focused on transportation solutions that reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
TRANSDEF read the County Staff report analyzing the Greenway ballot measure and found it to be woefully inadequate. Here is their letter to the Board of Supervisors pointing out the flaws and omissions in the staff report, and the serious unrecognized harms that the Greenway ballot initiative would cause for Santa Cruz County.
Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund
P.O. Box 151439 San Rafael, CA 94915 415-331-1982
Manu Koenig, Chair
Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors
701 Ocean Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Re: Election Code 9111 Report Regarding
the Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative
Dear Chair Koenig,
TRANSDEF, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, is an environmental non-profit focused on reducing the growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT), as the strategy needed to counter the dual challenges of rising GHG emissions from transportation and congested highways. For the past 26 years, we have advocated for public transit and the land use patterns that support transit.
We have reviewed the Election Code 9111 Report Regarding the Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative (the Report) and find it inadequate in evaluating the impacts of the Greenway Initiative (the Initiative) on the policies of the Santa Cruz County General Plan (the Plan) and the Sustainable Santa Cruz County Plan. In short, we find the Report failed to identify how the Initiative would interfere with the County's efforts to address its highway congestion and housing shortage. In particular, it is shocking that the Report failed to evaluate a transportation initiative's consistency with the Plan's Circulation Element. We request you ask Staff to revise the report to specifically address the following findings:
Consistency with the General Plan
1. The Report fails to acknowledge that the Initiative is fundamentally inconsistent with the General Plan Circulation Element. "The Transportation System Management (TSM) section is the cornerstone of the Circulation Element and Transportation Planning in general." (p. 3-3 of the Plan.)
The Transportation System Management section states:
The Initiative would block the only non-highway high-capacity transit mode available to the County "to reduce automobile trips and congestion." It would also block commuter rail's ability to reduce the impact of weekend beach traffic.
2. The Transportation System Goals include:
The Initiative would reduce mode choice and force more Santa Cruz residents to travel in automobiles. TRANSDEF is unaware of any County documents that demonstrate that the proposed Greenway would attract user volumes equivalent to projected commuter rail ridership, as an alternative to driving.
3. The Report should have indicated that the Initiative will interfere with Plan Objective 3.1: "To limit the increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) to achieve as a minimum, compliance with the current Air Quality Management Plan." The Initiative would eliminate the County's only available non-highway high-capacity transit mode option.
4. The Report's evaluation of "Limitations on County Actions Related to Housing" was superficial and conclusory. It focused on land use law, rather than on the fundamental connection between transportation and land use. Higher land use densities are practical if served by rail, because less physical space is taken up by parking and the economic burden of providing parking is lessened.
Envision Utah was a community consensus-building project in a fast-growing area of a conservative state, which had severe geographic constraints preventing further sprawl. The community came to agreement on growing up, not out. Higher density housing would be built, served by a rail network. "Since 2010, over 40 percent of new multifamily housing units have been built within walking distance of a rail station. That means reduced household costs, air emissions, traffic, infrastructure costs, and land consumption." https://envisionutah.org/about
The Report fails to discuss the impact of the Initiative on the County's potential for transit-oriented development, a fundamental strategy for affordable housing, stating only that:
5. The discussion in Point #4 strongly suggests that this Report conclusion is incorrect:
6. The Report should have indicated that the Initiative would interfere with Plan Policy 3.1.1: "Land Use Patterns (Jobs/Housing Balance):
The Initiative would prevent the implementation of this Policy by blocking commuter rail.
7. The Report's conclusion on business retention appears to be deliberately misleading:
Common sense (rather than a detailed analysis) is all that is needed to know that a county with a constantly congested main artery is not attractive to business. It should be obvious that a county investing in commuter rail will be seen by business as more attractive than one investing in a trail.
8. The Report's conclusion regarding the availability of freight service on business retention is similarly misleading:
The temporary unavailability of freight service is not a legitimate reason to not consider the value of rail freight to business. Again, common sense indicates that some businesses would find the availability of freight service attractive.
9. The Report discusses trail and trail with rail as mere amenities, thereby entirely failing to acknowledge the significance of commuter rail to the mobility of the County's residents, who otherwise are stuck in gridlock.
As discussed above, commuter rail would be much more supportive of development and affordable housing. That is not a speculation.
10. The Report's finding on congestion is accurate, but not consistent with the rest of the Report:
11. The Report is in error when it states "Although passenger rail transit is not funded or planned for the SCBRL at this time, it is possible that the construction of an interim trail on the railroad track alignment would postpone implementation of passenger rail transit on the SCBRL." (p. 7 of the Report.) Passenger rail is planned, and it is certain that an interim trail would postpone implementation of passenger rail.
Consistency with the Sustainable Santa Cruz County Plan
TRANSDEF was unable to locate a non-password-protected copy of this Plan. This odd practice of securing a governmentally adopted Plan that should have been publicly available prevented us from analyzing the Initiative's consistency with it.
Consistency with the Draft Update to the General Plan
The Report made no attempt to evaluate the consistency of the Initiative with the draft Access + Mobility Element (the Element) of the Draft General Plan Update. It is clear that high-capacity transit is needed to meet the dual challenges of highway congestion and excessive GHG emissions identified in the Element. It should be equally clear that the Initiative's emphasis on personal transport is quantitatively inadequate to face these challenges. VMT reduction and the transportation-land use connection are stressed in this Element even more strongly than in the current Plan:
Points #1 - #4 above apply even more to the Element than to the current Plan. While the Initiative purports to offer recreational and commuting opportunities, there is no basis upon which to conclude that the proposed trail would meet the County's needs, as identified in the Element.
Misleading Language in the Initiative Itself
Finally, the Report fails to call out the Initiative's misleading use of the word "interim." In the world of rail trails, it is extremely rare for a railbanked line to ever be put back into rail use. Once a line is railbanked, the national experience is that, for all practical purposes, it is forever lost to rail. While the Report should have clarified that fact for voters, all it says is "…there is no time frame given or definition of “interim” within the Initiative on when that future system might occur or how long the “interim” use would remain in place." (p. 5 of the Report.)
TRANSDEF requests the Board to have staff revise the Report, so as to present the voters with an accurate evaluation of the impacts of the Initiative, including its inconsistency with existing plans. Thank you for considering these comments.
The February 3 Regional Transportation Commission meeting turned into a proxy battle surrounding the June “trail only” Greenway ballot initiative. RTC staff presented information about how adverse abandonment of the Felton line (owned by Roaring Camp) could clear the way legally for them to abandon and tear out tracks on the Santa Cruz Branch line. Not surprisingly, the public has been outraged by this suggestion. Over 6,000 emails were sent to the RTC opposing this effort to destroy both our transit future and Roaring Camp, a beloved local woman-owned business.
No vote on rail was scheduled or taken. However, in a stunning new twist, at this meeting during the oral staff presentation on a different item, RTC planning staff member Sarah Christiansen revealed a proposal to completely remove the two rail bridges that cross Highway 1 in Aptos and replace them only with bike-and-pedestrian bridges. The stated goal of this staff proposal was to increase the competitiveness for grant applications for the highway-widening project. Strikingly, this proposal was not included in the written staff report. Needless to say, leaving out such a critical element of the proposal from the written record in the public packet contradicts RTC policy, as well as requirements for transparency in government.
New Trail-Only Policy with No Public Process
This new staff proposal to entirely scrap the rail bridges represents a dramatic shift in both the highway widening project plans and rail corridor project plans, without any public process or acknowledgement. If you are as dismayed at this subversion of good governance and good policy as we are, you can click here to write the commissioners. The next opportunity to let them know in person is the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th. Attend this meeting and help put pressure on the RTC. Remind them that both the Unified Corridor study and the Transportation Corridor Alternatives Analysis study settled on rail transit and trail together as the best use of the corridor. Ask them if they intend to abandon the public process or to move forward with the plan of record. Sacrificing the publicly owned rail line to reduce costs for the highway widening project is unacceptable and outrageous.
Adverse Abandonment on the Felton Line?
Why was Roaring Camp and Adverse Abandonment of the Felton Line on the RTC agenda? RTC Executive Director Guy Preston summarized it in the very last sentence of his 13-page report to the Commission:
"...RTC’s ability to railbank [on the Santa Cruz Branch Line] could still be stopped by the opposition of [Roaring Camp, as] a potential stranded line..."
Mr. Preston seems to be using the threat of adverse abandonment to pressure Roaring Camp to agree to permit railbanking on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, or else be punished by the RTC with loss of the Felton Line. It's disturbing to see our Regional Transportation Commission engaged in this kind of behavior.
Highway Widening and the Rail Line
The RTC highway-widening project currently requires the rail bridges that cross the highway to be replaced with longer ones that can span the newly widened highway. You can see the project description on the RTC website here. As stated in the project description, so long as the Santa Cruz Branch Line remains active, the rail bridges must be preserved or replaced. In order to avoid this bridge-replacement cost, this new staff proposal is to file for Abandonment on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, and then to Railbank the line to clear the way for demolishing the bridges. However, Roaring Camp could block abandonment of the Santa Cruz Line. To prevent Roaring Camp from blocking abandonment on the Santa Cruz line, Executive Director Preston seems to be threatening them with Adverse Abandonment of the Felton line. If successful, Adverse Abandonment would make Roaring Camp powerless to oppose the Santa Cruz Branch Line abandonment. Either way, if the Santa Cruz Branch Line were abandoned, Roaring Camp would lose their connection to the national rail network and be unable to bring their locomotives and other rail equipment into their rail yard. Abandonment would also strip the Felton Line of federal protection and leave it to the whims of local control. To add extra intimidation, Brian Peoples, the former organizer and treasurer for Commissioner Koenig’s election campaign PAC, has a publicly stated goal of electing Supervisors in Districts 3 and 4 who will support demolishing the Felton Branch Line, paving it, and forcing Roaring Camp to convert to “rubber-wheeled” vehicles.
Aside from the implications for Roaring Camp, removal of the rail bridges without replacing them would obviously be devastating for the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. If the highway widening project is to proceed, funding to replace the rail bridges must be included in the project budget. We can't allow Santa Cruz County to proceed down the same path that Los Angeles and so many other communities in the USA did in the 50s. Tearing out the publicly owned tracks and widening freeways is not the way forward for a healthy and sustainable community.
Let’s keep the pressure on the RTC to protect, restore and put our rail lines back in service to the community. click here to write the commissioners. Attend the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th and tell them you want both rail and trail, and you want them to respect the public process.
Public Engagement at the RTC Meeting
Commissioner Sandy Brown reported receiving more than 6000 emails supporting Roaring Camp and opposing the RTC staff proposal for Adverse Abandonment of their Felton Branch Line, including this one from the San Lorenzo Valley fire chiefs. Here is a quote from their open letter to the RTC:
"We write you today to urge you not to proceed with any efforts to abandon freight service on the Felton Branch Rail Line or the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. These rail lines ensure there is a rail connection for Santa Cruz County and the rest of California, which may be critical in providing an essential route to the San Lorenzo Valley and other areas during future fire emergencies related to climate change, severe drought and catastrophic wildfires."
The vast majority of public comment was devoted to outrage over the RTC’s threat to force abandonment of the Felton Brach Line. The discomfort of the RTC Commissioners was evident. However, although they asked Mr. Preston to continue negotiating with Roaring Camp, the commission did not commit to preserving the rail lines.
RTC Commissioner Shiffrin on Greenway
The Greenway ballot initiative is widely acknowledged to be deceptive. At the RTC meeting, Commissioner Shiffrin had some great comments on what the initiative would actually do. You can view a transcription of his remarks at the California Local online news service here: https://californialocal.com/localnews/santa-cruz/ca/article/show/3010/3010-transcript-of-andy-shiffin-position-on-coastal-rail-trail/
Here is a small excerpt from his remarks:
"Despite the misleading rhetoric, if the freight easement is abandoned, Greenway supporters will undoubtedly advocate that the rail tracks be removed. And if they succeed, the likelihood of rail service ever returning between Santa Cruz and Watsonville is zero to none."
Thank you to Tony Russomanno for contributing to this story.
Editor's note 2/14/2022: this article has been updated slightly for increased accuracy.
DATA SHOWS RAIL TRANSIT IS FEASIBLE
Some recent press coverage has stated that rail transit is unfeasible. The data shows otherwise. All of the past studies conducted by the RTC found that rail transit in Santa Cruz County is both feasible and fundable. The studies also found that rail transit combined with the Rail Trail is the best option to expand our transportation network, because it will provide the most freedom of movement, reduce the most traffic, and lower greenhouse gas emissions the most.
Rail Transit Feasibility Study -- Final Report
The county’s population density is one of the highest in California, with approximately 90,000 people living within one-half mile of the rail line. Areas along the rail line have population densities similar to Berkeley/Oakland and cities along the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. The number of people per square mile in the City of Santa Cruz and the Seacliff area are approximately 4,000; Live Oak ranges from 5,300 to 7,100 people/square mile, and the City of Watsonville has over 7,500 people/square mile.
The Rail Transit Feasibility Study final report can be found here.
Here’s the link to the most recent RTC study, the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis, which had the same findings.
Do Media Outlets Say that Rail is “Unfeasible”?
Unfortunately, at the April’s 2021 RTC meeting, District 5 representative Commissioner McPherson stated that rail is unfeasible because 100% of the funding isn't immediately available. This was a classic ‘straw man’ argument. No infrastructure projects start out 100% funded. With that said, the funding landscape for public transportation has completely changed since then. We encourage Commissioner McPherson to revisit this issue. Not only is there more federal and state funding for rail than ever before, but Santa Cruz County is also well placed to apply for these funds because we have a local match in Measure D. These funds that can be leveraged to apply for grants to repair our corridor and fund the EIR. In fact, the rail project has around 50% of funding already identified. This is an unusually high number for a project of this size.
We urge the Regional Transportation Commissioners to take the next steps towards passenger rail service: drafting and approving an accurate Business Plan, with cost estimates for ultralight rail vehicles, rather than heavy diesel commuter vehicles, and applying for grants for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
What Do We Value?
Since the April 2021 meeting Greenway and the local media outlets that support Greenway continue to parrot the ‘unfeasible’ message. However, at the end of the day this is a question of community and values. Do we value the essential workers and service workers that form the backbone of our economy? Do we want to provide transportation options that save families money and time? Do we want safer streets and traffic-free transportation options? Do we want to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? We believe the answer to these questions is “YES”. If so, then we can fund expanded public transportation in Santa Cruz County, including rail. We are inspired by the creative options put together to finance public transportation by community groups in Portland, which were unanimously adopted by the Portland City Council. We hope that Santa Cruz County leaders will learn from their innovative example.
Guest Post by Paul Schoellhamer
Railbanking is a real thing, but some of the claims being made about it here in Santa Cruz County have no basis in reality.
Railbanking was a legal sleight-of-hand (and I mean that in a good way) that was created by Congress in 1983 to solve a very specific problem: flaws in some railroad land deeds were making it difficult for some of those properties to be converted by local governments into recreational trails.
In that purpose, Congress’s 1983 railbanking provision has mostly been a success: a lot of abandoned rail rights-of-way have been turned into recreational trails. Across the U.S. railbanking has, in 37 years and over 300 specific projects, facilitated the conversion of roughly 6000 miles of rail right-of-way. And those have been all kinds of conversions: trails adjacent to tracks and trails in place of tracks, trails that were paved or not paved but improved or that offered no improvements at all. (In a few cases the rail-right-of-way was just left as a place to cross-country ski in winter – snowfall being the only improvement.) We have a lot of real world experience with railbanking.
Greenway now argues that railbanking can do something very specific here in Santa Cruz County: we can with railbanking remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete and then at some point in the future we can reverse course, tear up all that pavement, rebuild the rail line, and offer some type of electric light rail transit service. The question before us is: Is that a realistic possibility we would be leaving for our kids and grandkids? Or are we being misled into a dead-end?
We could have a theoretical debate about what could or could not happen in a distant future, but we don’t need to. We have 37 years and roughly 6000 miles of real world experience with railbanking. That real world experience tells us volumes about what railbanking realistically can and cannot do.
And here is what all that real world experience is telling us: as much as railbanking has accomplished over all those years and all those miles, it has NEVER done what Greenway says it can do here in Santa Cruz County. To be specific, Greenway claims that railbanking would make it a realistic possibility that we could remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete, and then many years later decide to rip it all up and rebuild the rail line -- and that has NEVER happened in the entire history of railbanking.
The point is simply this: Greenway should be honest with the public. Greenway can advocate tearing up the tracks if they want to, but they should stop holding out to the public the unrealistic claim that under their proposal throwing around the word “railbanking” has any realistic chance of bringing back rail service in the future. Tear it up and pave it over and it very likely is gone forever -- that’s what honesty looks like.
That being the case, the question becomes: Should we sitting here in 2022 be making a decision for 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, when we have (let’s face it) very limited ability to predict what that world will look like then? Or should we in fairness leave that decision to be made by those living in that world, including our kids and grandkids?
Paul Schoellhamer worked for many years as legislative staff in the US House of Representatives, focusing on transportation issues. He now lives in South County.
Modern transportation experts agree on a few things:
Adding passenger rail transit to our bus system will increase county-wide use of public transit from 13,700 trips to 34,200 trips every single day according to the RTC’s recent Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA). That is a 150% increase in public transit ridership county wide. The data is in, and as a result, the county Regional Transportation Commission has selected electric passenger rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative for adding public transit to the rail corridor.
To support this 150% increase in public transit ridership, local funds will be needed to match available state and federal funding. The RTC’s draft TCAA Business Plan states that besides a traditional sales tax, other sources of local funds include “funds from vehicle levy or registration fees, local fuel tax, property tax, income tax, transient occupancy tax, student fees, vehicle miles traveled charges, and parking fees.” What the Business Plan doesn’t say is how to move forward.
Proactive communities are leading the way in finding the equitable “how” to fund expansions of public transit. One of the most successful strategies is the “collaborative” model utilized by the City of Portland in its Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) project, grounded in a commitment to Transportation Justice.
One of the most amazing things about Portland's community-wide effort is that its final report outlines seven near-term and three long-term funding strategies and of these strategies, none involves a sales tax. It should come as no surprise; the final report was unanimously adopted by the Portland City Council with direction to staff to implement the recommendations.
The benefits of improving our public transportation system are so numerous, it is short-sighted and unjust to delay finding the funding to transform our transportation system into the more equitable, sustainable and economically just system we want and need. Let’s take advantage of the tremendously creative energy in our community and go to work on a “POEM” project of our own.
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Friends of the Rail & Trail is a grassroots transportation advocacy organization.