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Transit Group Pushes Supervisors on Rail Trail

Updated: Apr 15

By PK HATTIS | pkhattis@santacruzsentinel.com | Santa Cruz Sentinel


Rail and trail supporters climb the stairs of the County Government Center on Wednesday to bring their message to the offices of county supervisors. PHOTOS BY SHMUEL THALER — SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL
Rail and trail supporters climb the stairs of the County Government Center on Wednesday to bring their message to the offices of county supervisors. PHOTOS BY SHMUEL THALER — SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL

Friends of the Rail & Trail Board Chair Matt Ferrell speaks at Wednesday’s rally. More than 50 rail and trail proponents rallied while a small counter-protest, at left, took place at the same time.
Friends of the Rail & Trail Board Chair Matt Ferrell speaks at Wednesday’s rally. More than 50 rail and trail proponents rallied while a small counter-protest, at left, took place at the same time.

SANTA CRUZ — More than 50 local transportation advocates rallied in front of the Santa Cruz County Government Center on Wednesday to call on county leaders to move forward with a pair of Coastal Rail Trail segments in the Mid County region that have stalled out in recent days.


The demonstration, organized by Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail and Trail, a nonprofit dedicated to manifesting a 32-mile trail and rail transit system along the Branch Rail Line corridor, comes more than a week after the county Board of Supervisors failed to green light plans for the construction of Segments 10 and 11 of the rail trail, extending about 4.5 miles from Live Oak to Aptos.


“We are here today to demand that supervisors Koenig and McPherson change their vote and stop blocking forward progress on Segments 10 and 11 of the Coastal Rail Trail,” said Matt Farrell, chair of the Friends board, through a bullhorn that was met by cheers from the boisterous attendees.


The crowd’s ire was directed at supervisors Bruce McPherson and Manu Koenig who voted against the staff recommendations to approve designs for the multiuse trail next to the rail line and sunk the motion through a 2-2 split vote, citing environmental impact concerns and ballooning costs.


Supervisors Justin Cummings and Felipe Hernandez supported the staff’s plans to move ahead with the segments while Zach Friend had recused himself because he lives within close proximity to the rail line.


“The largest transport active transportation grant in the history of the state of California is at risk,” added Farrell.


The month ahead

During the meeting last week and in the days after, planners from multiple local agencies expressed fears that a delay in moving forward with the plans could jeopardize a record-setting grant the county had won for the segments. The California Transportation Commission Active Transportation Program’s largest-ever grant — $67.6 million — was awarded to the county in late 2022.


But to formally accept that funding, the county needs to finalize agreements with state authorities in advance of the commission’s upcoming meeting in late June. If it falls short of that timeline, planners say, the county would need to request an extension, which could damage its credibility when it comes to applying for funding in the future.


County staff told the Sentinel late last week that if the item is brought back to the board and approved at a meeting in April or mid May at the latest, they could still potentially meet the deadline without requesting an extension.


McPherson told the Sentinel on Wednesday that he believes his concerns regarding the costs of the segments — which were recently estimated to be about $28 million over budget — will be addressed at a subsequent committee hearing with the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and with the board before the end of the month.


“I recognize concerns of rail advocates,” wrote McPherson, “but I believe budget implications of (Segments) 10-11 approval need to be, and will be, clarified at the RTC April 18 committee meeting, and when it gets back to the (Board of Supervisors) on April 30.”


Power to persuade

The rally took place the day before a regularly scheduled meeting for the transportation commission, which is the owner of the rail corridor and partner agency for segments 10 and 11. Planners with the commission were caught off guard by the board’s decision last week and scrambled to put together an update for the commission in time for its meeting. But despite this item being included on the original meeting agenda, as of Wednesday the update had been deferred to a later date.


Mike Rotkin, a member of the commission, pointed to the rejection of Measure D in 2022 — a measure that pushed for trail in place of rail — as evidence that the community supports plans in line with what the staff recommended, namely, a trail next to the rail line that keeps the possibility of passenger rail open.


“Every demographic at the same amount — roughly three-quarters of the county (voters) — voted in favor of a rail and a trail,” said Rotkin. “We need to persuade these supervisors that this is the right thing to do and this is the time to do it.”


Both McPherson and Koenig have downplayed the notion that the pause poses a risk to the grant or project as a whole, saying it is important to raise questions about the environmental and financial implications now.


“I understand very well what people want, the question though is what our community can afford,” Koenig told the Sentinel on Wednesday. “I don’t think the vote on Measure D was direction to the supervisors — or any member of the RTC — to suspend all critical thinking whatsoever and move forward at all costs.”


Koenig said he fears that the $111.7 million for the segments — or $24 million per mile, as he puts it — is too high a price to pay and could swallow up funding for future segments in South County. County staff said it and other agencies still have a couple of years to apply for more grants to fill the gap, but Koenig said that windfall is “by no means guaranteed” amid a statewide budget deficit.


“That’s a lot to think about and I think we have to take a pause and make sure our whole community understands what’s at stake at this juncture,” said Koenig.


Koenig and McPherson, supported by Hernandez, did approve an environmental impact report for the two segments at last weeks’ meeting, but the action left out five other recommendations necessary to charge ahead with the project.


Hernandez told the Sentinel earlier this week that the board’s tie vote 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,” Hernandez wrote in a statement from earlier this week. “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.”


Advocates clash

The rail and trail rally goers were met by a significantly smaller group of counter demonstrators voicing support for the board’s pause in action. The groups occasionally clashed, trading verbal jabs and interruptions. Some had brought out their “YES Greenway” signs from 2022, signaling support for Measure D and a trail-only option.


One member of the counter group, Nancy Yellin, said she worries money spent to keep rail projects alive will take away from other needs, such as roadwork.


“We’re going to lose our money to take care of our infrastructure to pay for a train that we’re never going to be able to pay for,” said Yellin. “So we’re kinda wasting money.”


After Farrell and Rotkin’s remarks, the crowd of rail and trail proponents marched into the government building to drop off handwritten notes at the supervisors’ offices demanding that they reverse course and approve the project.


“I wonder if Koenig and McPherson are at all concerned about their legacies,” said longtime county resident Carl Seibert before heading to the steps. “I wish more people would look at this as an investment rather than decrying the costs.”

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