top of page

History of the Rail & Trail Project: Progress VS Obstruction

Updated: May 10, 2023

Last Updated: 9/5/2022

Trail Funding as of July 2021

The Vision

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 (such as Unified Corridor Investment Study and Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis).


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.


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.


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 • Trail-Only • 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!

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 theSanta 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.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page