top of page

State Grant Hangs in the Balance with Rail Trail Segments in Limbo

Santa Cruz County RTC to get project update on Thursday

By PK HATTIS | | Santa Cruz Sentinel

The Santa Cruz Branch Line lies unused in Live Oak on Monday as a cyclist crosses the tracks at 30th Avenue. This section of the line is part of Coastal Rail Trail Segments 10 and 11, an approximately 4.5-mile new multi-use bicycle and pedestrian trail proposed to extend from the eastern side of 17th Avenue to the western side of State Park Drive. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)
The Santa Cruz Branch Line lies unused in Live Oak on Monday as a cyclist crosses the tracks at 30th Avenue. This section of the line is part of Coastal Rail Trail Segments 10 and 11, an approximately 4.5-mile new multi-use bicycle and pedestrian trail proposed to extend from the eastern side of 17th Avenue to the western side of State Park Drive. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ — After simmering beneath the surface for months, one of Santa Cruz County’s most hotly debated issues was recently brought back to a full boil.

The county Board of Supervisors helped turn up the heat last week when it, by way of a split vote, declined to approve plans for two Coastal Rail Trail segments running about 4.5 miles from Live Oak to Aptos, primarily citing financial and environmental concerns.

The Santa Cruz Branch Line tracks wind south through Live Oak. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)
The Santa Cruz Branch Line tracks wind south through Live Oak. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The decision was made amid warnings from county staff that if the board failed to approve its recommendations, including design elements and agreements with state authorities, it could jeopardize a historic grant opportunity.

In December 2022, the county was awarded $67.6 million from the California Transportation Commission’s Active Transportation Program for the two segments — the largest grant the program has ever given, according to the county. But in order to formally request the allocation at the commission’s June 27-28 meetings, the county needs to enter into a baseline agreement with the agency that will make the request possible.

About last week

Staff warned last week that declining to approve that process could delay the request and cause the state to lose confidence in the county when it comes to other grant opportunities.

Rebecca Hurley, the county’s deputy director of parks, told the Sentinel that county staff has been meeting individually with board members to try to address any concerns they have about the project. Hurley added that if the items were brought back and approved by the board “sooner than later,” the county could still conceivably meet the necessary timelines to make the request in June.

“They (state commission) awarded the largest grant money in history to one of the smallest counties in the state,” said Hurley. “It’s unprecedented for this county and we’d really love to show them (the state) that we can work towards getting this project done without delay.”

The board has two meetings scheduled in April and another in mid-May. Hurley said Friday that a date had not yet been selected for bringing the items back to the board, but that if no action is taken by around mid-May, the county will need to request a grant extension, which could impact its ability to secure future grants.

“I know that (California Transportation Commission) staff are aware of the board’s decision, or rejection, on Tuesday,” said Hurley. “I don’t think there’s any impacts yet. I would anticipate if we can’t come to, you know, an approving action soon and have to ask for an extension there could be some negative impacts about that.”

County staff listed eight recommendations last Tuesday, including the baseline agreement, design elements and an environmental impact report detailing construction ramifications for the pair of segments, which aim to build a multi-use trail alongside the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, also known as the “ultimate configuration.” That configuration was deemed the environmentally superior alternative, according to the impact report, which weighed several configuration options.

Supervisor Felipe Hernandez made the motion to approve all eight recommendations, saying he “believes in this process that we’re doing and this project.” Both he and board Chair Justin Cummings voted to approve while Supervisors Bruce McPherson and Manu Koenig voted against and Zach Friend recused himself entirely because he lives in close proximity to the rail corridor. The vote failed to pass because of the tie.

Koenig and McPherson both expressed reservations about the project’s $27 million to $28 million funding gap and the environmental impacts of placing the trail next to — rather than in place of — the rail line.

Hernandez went on to join Koenig and McPherson in only certifying the impact report, but not the agreements that would ensure the grant process moves forward. Cummings voted against the partial approval.

McPherson told the Sentinel Monday that he remains concerned about the finances, but that last week’s vote “did not kill any project whatsoever.”

“In no way do I want to lose the active transportation grant that we received,” said McPherson, “but I do want to look at the reality of the cost of what we’re doing.”

Koenig and Hernandez did not respond to a Sentinel request for comment prior to the print deadline Monday.

Hernandez wrote in an emailed statement Monday night that the tie vote last week was “unexpected and caught us all off guard and we risk losing funding altogether if we miss deadlines.”

“And failure by any of the agencies to move the project forward damages our credibility with the CTC for future projects of all types. All of the concerns are being addressed and we need to step and take this to the finish line at the RTC,” continued Hernandez. “We need to show the California Transportation Commission that we are good faith partners and capable of finding solutions to any challenges in significant projects like this.”

In a statement shared with the Sentinel Tuesday, Koenig dismissed concerns that the state grant could be at risk, saying the roughly $24.5 million per mile cost for the project warrants taking a pause to see if those totals can be brought down.

“The notion that we’re highly jeopardizing the state grant by pausing and asking questions is simply incorrect,” wrote Koenig in the statement. “We can ask for a time extension from the CTC. Everyone is motivated to make these projects work.”

Koenig also cited concerns that the local money needed to cover cost overruns for the pair of segments could drain from the pot of funding needed to complete future trail segments in South County that are still in development phases. He added that this funding shortage could be compounded by interfering with the county’s ability to maximize future grant opportunities.

At the meeting last Tuesday, county staff said it intended to seek additional grant funds to cover the roughly $28 million shortfall to avoid draining other local funding pools.

Broader implications

Though the board’s decision applies only to Segments 10 and 11, its impacts could ripple out to other local agencies and regions. The rail line corridor is owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which oversees the effort to build the 32-mile, 20-segment, multi-use Coastal Rail Trail that is planned to run through the county from top to bottom and primarily alongside the rail line.

As a partner agency for Segments 10 and 11 specifically, the commission’s staff is working with the county to identify alternative plans that could assuage some of the supervisors’ concerns so the project can be reconsidered soon, said commission spokesperson Shannon Munz. However, she added, Tuesday’s decision “is going to delay this project,” which was previously estimated to be construction-ready by 2026.

“We need to be able to show that we can deliver the projects that we say we’re going to deliver in order to be competitive for future grants,” said Munz. “There’s no guarantee that the (California Transportation Commission) will approve an extension.”

Munz said other rail trail segments already under construction or in development will continue to move forward, but stressed that the commission must stay credible in the eyes of state and federal authorities to see the entire rail trail project through.

Railroad tracks adjacent to Kinsley Street in Live Oak on Monday. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Railroad tracks adjacent to Kinsley Street in Live Oak on Monday. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

According to a staff report from the commission, 17 of the rail trail’s 32 miles are currently built or are in various stages of development as separate projects.

“Some of them are not fully funded and this is what we’re worried about,” said Munz. “If we try to get a grant for one of these other segments, with what happened with this is: We can’t deliver on these projects and that funding could be at risk and we could be out of the running for that funding.”

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission will hold its monthly meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday in the county Board of Supervisors chambers at 701 Ocean St., Room 525 in Santa Cruz. Munz said commission staff will bring the county-approved environmental report to the commission for approval of its own and will update the commission on the county’s recent actions along with “what that means for the RTC now.”

Community debate

The board’s recent decision also appears to have reignited a debate that had been raging for years but receded slightly after the 2022 Measure D vote.

When the measure, which would have rewritten the county’s general plan to favor a trail in place of the rail line, was rejected by 73% of voters in June 2022, many viewed it as a political mandate to keep options open for rail line usage while the commission continues its pursuit of a trail next to the rail.

Less than six months later, the transportation commission ordered a project concept report analyzing the feasibility of a 22-mile electric passenger rail project across the county. The study is expected to be completed early next year, according to Munz.

Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail Trail, a group that helped lead the effort to defeat Measure D, told the Sentinel in an emailed statement that “The people of Santa Cruz County should be deeply concerned about the lack of leadership shown by Supervisors McPherson and Koenig.”

“The people have spoken at the ballot box repeatedly,” reads the statement. “Though Supervisors McPherson and Koenig are not interested in listening to the voters, we know our other local officials, as well as the incoming County Supervisors, will continue to listen, develop solutions and stand up for the rail trail.”

Bud Colligan, a leader among the YES Greenway campaign, declined to comment on the board’s recent decision.

Other jurisdictions involved in Segments 10 and 11 are also feeling the heat. At a Capitola City Council meeting Thursday, dozens of pro-trail advocates showed up to voice frustration with the city when it comes to the pair of segments that run largely through its jurisdiction.

Some even lodged a formal complaint that the city was complicit in violating Measure L, passed by city voters in 2018 as a means of preventing the trail from detouring around the Capitola Trestle.

As the lead agency for the segments, the county has principal responsibility for approving the project, according to a Capitola staff report last year. Other partner agencies such as the Santa Cruz transportation commission and Capitola have some discretionary approval or permitting power.

Still, Hurley, with county parks, narrowed the scope of the debate by coming back to the massive grant that made the project possible and the reason the project garnered so much interest and positive attention from state authorities at all.

“Part of the reason they (California Transportation Commission) awarded the grant in the first place is because of the multi-use option of the rail and the trail,” said Hurley.

If you go

What: Santa Cruz County RTC Coastal Rail Trail Segments 10 and 11 environment review and project update.

When: 9 a.m. Thursday.

Where: Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors Chambers at 701 Ocean St., Room 525 in Santa Cruz. Zoom also available at


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page