In 2002, over 20 years ago, the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail was established with the mission of manifesting a paved pedestrian and bike trail alongside passenger rail service on our existing Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line (SCBRL). This work has been funded by the local community and carried forward by hundreds of ordinary citizen volunteers. Since 2002 some amazing things have been accomplished, and yet there remains much to do.
From the beginning, the vision of a multi-modal trail paralleling rail transit service was grounded in two goals: first, free us from traffic with safe, efficient and enjoyable alternatives to our congested highway and roads, and second, reduce our local carbon footprint. Over 50% of Santa Cruz County greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, by far the single largest source of emissions.1
The early vision for Rail & Trail was endorsed by the community without much controversy. Over the years this public Rail & Trail project has progressed through the standard rigorous public process of planning, studies, and reviews incorporating community input. The award-winning Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network Master Plan now provides the foundation for several completed trail sections, as well as many more that are in the pipeline. All of the studies, including the two most recent major studies2 using the metrics of Equity, the Environment, and Economics, found the best use of the rail corridor to be the trail in combination with first transit and then specifically electric rail transit.
Obstructionism Begins in 2014
A few property owners along the rail line had concerns, however it was only after the purchase of the rail corridor by the RTC in 2012 that obstruction of the Rail & Trail project began. Several mid county individuals formed a series of groups under different names. They are now known as "Greenway,". These people began promoting a trail-only use for the corridor, disregarding the history of the project and the county's need for an alternative to Highway 1. None of these organizations participated in the effort to purchase the rail line for the public use. Instead, they have consistently obstructed the project, advocating at times against individual trail segments and advocating consistently against rail transit. By these actions it’s clear that their motivation is first and foremost to stop rail transit at any cost, even when it harms the trail project.
Scroll down for a timeline of all of the progress, and obstruction, that's happened so far with the Rail & Trail project.
1UCS Preferred Scenario Document
2Unified Corridor Investment Study and Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis
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 - RTC Proposed Abandonment of the Felton Branch Rail Line (FBRL) and the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line (SCBRL)
The RTC staff released a statement that abandonment of the SCCBRL would make their grant applications for the Highway 1 widening project more competitive because they would be allowed to remove the rail bridges crossing Highway 1 without replacing them. Most analysis has concluded that abandonment efforts would fail, since Roaring Camp objects to this devastating action and the Surface Transportation Board is unlikely to approve harming an existing rail business. This is why RTC staff then suggested a third party Adverse Abandonment of the FBRL, to strip Roaring Camp of the right to object to abandonment and destruction of the SCBRL
2022 - Greenway Ballot Initiative
Greenway funded a highly deceptive local Ballot Measure to override our public process and create a trail-only plan.
Measure D "Greenway" pretends to preserve rail for the future and speed trail progress but actually would:
• Force the County to try to Abandon and Railbank the corridor in order to demolish the publicly owned rail infrastructure.
• Strip all rail transit language from the County’s 20 Year General Plan for the rail corridor so the rail line can never be brought back.
• De-fund trail building in the corridor.
• Delay new trail construction progressfor 8 or more years to redo EIR studies and seek new funding sources.
This coming June we will all have the opportunity to vote for continuing our progress or obstruction. We urge you to vote NO on the deceptive Measure D 'Greenway' ballot initiative.
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 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.
Dear Supervisor McPherson and members of the SCCRTC:
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.
New technologies and innovative solutions to climate-driven emergencies are in development in California and beyond. For example, fire trains are beginning to see use to help fight major wildfires. This was the case in Northern California during the 2021 Dixie Fire. Fire trains use water and retardant, hauled by rail in tanker cars. The trains also include firefighting professionals who battle wildfires from the train, helping to protect watersheds and critical infrastructure.
Freight use abandonment of either rail line will lead to railbanking, which would result in tearing out the tracks, thus eliminating a potentially critical tool in the years ahead as we learn to adapt to the new realities of climate change.
As you may be aware, there are areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains that are only accessed via the rail line, such as within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the Pogonip open space area.
Coupled with new technologies, such as fire trains that are under study in California, is major new funding for wildfire prevention and protection that is being developed by both the state and federal governments. It is important for Santa Cruz County to maximize options for future resources and to not get left behind in funding and policy decisions that could potentially benefit our region.
We urge you to maintain the Felton Branch Rail Line and the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line as critical infrastructure for our community.
Robert Gray, Fire Chief, Felton Fire District
Dan Walters, Fire Chief, Zayante Fire District
Stacie Brownlee, Fire Chief, Ben Lomond Fire District
Mark Bingham, Fire Chief, Boulder Creek Fire District
Jim Anderson, Vice Chair, Felton Fire District
Bob Locatelli, Fire Director, Boulder Creek Fire District
Sam Robustelli, Fire Director, Boulder Creek Fire District
Published by San Lorenzo Valley Post
To read the original article on the SLV Post site click SLV Fire Officials Respond to RTC: Oppose Forced Abandonment of the Felton Branch Line.
Last week during the January RTC meeting, it became clear that the rumors we had heard about the RTC seeking “adverse abandonment” were true. Adverse abandonment means that the one calling for it wants to take away rail rights from users of a rail line.
What surprised us the most was which rail line the RTC was attacking first. The RTC has confirmed that in order to pave the way to abandon and railbank the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, the RTC will be discussing an adverse abandonment of the Felton Branch Rail Line which is wholly owned by Roaring Camp Railroads.
Why is the RTC making such hostile moves?
The RTC staff has released a statement claiming they are making this move in order to save money on rail bridges and that Roaring Camp will still be able to operate if their branch line were abandoned. This is an inaccurate analysis and a mischaracterization of what this adverse action will actually do to our community as a whole and Roaring Camp in particular. Roaring Camp is rightly outraged at this attack (you can read their response here) as are we.
We firmly oppose abandoning our rail lines.
In the end, it is always better to invest in infrastructure for our future. Our mission is to advocate for both electric passenger rail and the 32 mile rail trail in the existing active freight corridor. Keeping our rail lines in the national system allows for stronger infrastructure for all uses, including emergency evacuations. Building load-limited bridges is not in our best interest.
We Do Not Support Abandonment
At the end of the day, we are a community, we need to come together not just to build the right systems and infrastructure that serve everyone, but also to support our local industries. Businesses like Roaring Camp are the heart of Santa Cruz County.
Please write to the RTC commissioners and let them know you do not support abandonment of either the FELTON or SANTA CRUZ BRANCH LINE. Furthermore, please mention the importance of keeping our lines to freight standard. We want electric passenger service that’s quiet and seamless in our community, but we also want bridges that are capable of supporting firefighting trains and any other needed services for our community now and in the future.
We want to build a resilient and multipurpose transportation system. We are horrified that some on the RTC have turned to threatening actions against a longstanding community business. We need the RTC to take a leading role in building a transportation system for the future, including ensuring we have the ability to protect and serve everyone.
Spanning two weekends — one each in Watsonville and Santa Cruz — the clean-energy, all-electric light rail vehicle gave the community a tangible example of what car-free travel could be like in the region.
“What an amazing way to see Santa Cruz! Pretty stoked to see some alternative clean energy transportation,” Aaron Bistrin of Santa Cruz shared on Instagram, representing a sentiment echoed by many other users of Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
More than 2,000 people took rides on the Coast Futura, including families, people with limited mobility and local elected officials. The streetcar demonstration was produced with support from a collaboration that included about 120 local volunteers, Roaring Camp Railroads and TIG/m, which manufactures the streetcar.
“We are at an exciting time here with this rail demo, addressing both climate change and the public transit equity crisis. Every segment of our community benefits from a robust, zero-emission public transit system that provides access to jobs, medical care, education, cultural events, shopping and connecting with friends.”
— Lani Faulkner, Coast Futura volunteer
The demonstration event began in Watsonville with a 5.2-mile out-and-back trip that included expansive views of agricultural land, rolling under a Highway 1 overpass and taking in rarely seen vistas in remote areas of Watsonville Slough.
In Santa Cruz, the Coast Futura departed from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, traversing the San Lorenzo River Trestle as it headed out on a 7-mile round-trip ride across the Santa Cruz Harbor, past Simpkins Swim Center, to the Capitola Bluffs and back. The streetcar quietly passed through numerous neighborhoods, past parks and schools. Despite running at much slower speeds than the vehicle is capable of, due to the need for upgrades to the rail tracks, afternoon riders reached Capitola in half the time of driving while gliding by traffic.
In total, the Coast Futura demonstration event included 68 runs over six days, covering 433 miles.
“Over the last couple days we’ve been able to ride and watch the demo train ‘cruz’ the Boardwalk to Capitola and back! We are incredibly impressed with all the passion, education, good energy, and overall community building vibe the leaders of Coast Futura have displayed. Thank you!”
— Joe Downie, Capitola resident via Instagram
The demonstration event ran on tracks that parallel sections of the Coastal Rail Trail in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville, illustrating how the rail corridor is wide enough to support rail service and a world-class bike and pedestrian path. A half-dozen sections of the Rail Trail are already completed or in progress.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) authorized the
demonstration as an opportunity for the public to see an example of a modern electric rail vehicle on two sections of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line track.
Earlier in 2021, following a comprehensive study, the RTC designated electric
passenger rail as the preferred alternative use of the publicly-owned rail corridor, envisioned to be established alongside a wide trail. The RTC’s conclusion was based on a “triple bottom line” focus on sustainability, including equity, environment and economy. This approach remains popular with the general public, as evidenced by the RTC’s public release of letters of support for rail transit it has received throughout 2021.
Though the Coast Futura demonstration was not a proposal for rail service, it was presented as an accessible, tangible concept intended to inspire a community discussion about the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. Organizers hope that discussion will include potential funding scenarios that could include state and federal funding, especially following the passage of President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
See the full story here: https://lookout.co/santacruz/coast-life/story/2021-11-12/clean-energy-coast-futura-rail-demo-met-with-excitement-hope-for-the-future
Over the past years despite negative messaging from public transportation opponents we continued to believe that Santa Cruz County residents favor improving public transportation and would support adding passenger rail. Now that the RTC has officially chosen clean-energy passenger rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative for transit in the rail corridor, and is developing a business plan, we thought it was important to hear from voters county-wide and to find out whether the public will support this plan. Today we’re writing to share the news with you. The results are in, and they blew us away. It turns out that when asked, 74% of active voters in Santa Cruz County support electric passenger rail service.
We knew that Santa Cruz County supports reducing pollution and that the need for better transportation options is clear to everyone. Despite that, we were surprised by both the depth and breadth of this support. The results are overwhelmingly positive across all five Supervisorial Districts. Depending on the district, 68% to 86% of survey respondents said they are in favor of the plan to provide clean energy light rail between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. This county-wide result is a watershed moment for transportation planning in Santa Cruz County.
The idea to tear out the track and replace them with only a trail is deeply unpopular, as is the notion of pausing rail service planning. Faced with a direct choice among continuing with the current plan for both the trail and passenger rail, continuing to build the trail but pausing the plan for passenger rail, or removing the tracks and converting the entire corridor to trail only, the survey found just 17% are in favor of tearing out the track and only 19% support a pause in planning. The majority of the county prefers continuing with the current plan for both trail and passenger rail.
Who Did the Research?
To conduct the survey, we chose California-based FM3 Research, a highly respected and independent public opinion research firm with a nearly 40-year track record of accurate, statistically valid research for non-profit organizations and local governments across the state and the U.S. A total of 618 interviews were conducted in mid-February. Participants were a randomly selected representative sample of our county’s active voters. They were contacted via email and/or phone numbers provided by the Santa Cruz County Registrar of Voters. The composition of the sample aligned with the characteristics of local voters including political party, age, gender, race/ethnicity and Supervisorial District. According to FM3, a sample of this size is commonly used for accurate analysis of the opinions of residents in an area such as Santa Cruz County and is consistent with research the firm did in advance of the successful passage of Measure D in Santa Cruz County in 2016.
We’re so excited to share this news with you. We’re pleased to know that transforming public transportation in Santa Cruz County has such overwhelming public support. Thank you to our donors both large and small. It was your support that enabled us to fund this research.
Our 2021 mission is clear. We must step up our efforts to reach out to all the residents of the county and to share the Coast Connect vision for public transportation: building the Rail Trail, adding clean energy light rail, and improving neighborhood streets for biking and walking.
We didn’t plan it out this way, but like a great transit connection, this good news synchronizes beautifully with our Spring Fundraising Challenge. This means that right now is a great time to celebrate the survey results and help us get ready for our 2021 effort by making a donation. If you would like to support our work, please click here and have your donation of any amount doubled until we reach our $40,000 match challenge. Thank you for your support!