Rail Trail coming to a head: Supporters make big push to keep rail on track heading into key vote next week
The decades-long Rail Trail debate is headed into a second battle next week, as the county Regional Transportation Commission decides whether to approve a business plan for passenger rail or shelve the plan. Supporters of the rail line are on the offensive — sending letters and making their voices heard.
Here’s what will happen on Thursday, May 6: The 12-member commission is expected to vote on the Rail Trail “business plan” for a second time after a motion to approve it failed in an initial vote on April 1. The business plan’s aim is to have an electric commuter train system on the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor, with a trail alongside it. If the business plan isn’t approved next week, the likelihood of the rail line coming to fruition looks even slimmer than it does now.
In a last-ditch effort to get the rail momentum back on track, rail proponents rallied Wednesday in Aptos, forming a human train along the dormant branch line tracks to show public support for the project.
Earlier this week, the Santa Cruz City Council approved a resolution in support of the business plan, which acts as a roadmap drafted by planners to outline funding sources and implementation steps to make passenger rail a reality.
When a similar move to back the business plan went before Watsonville City Council on Tuesday evening, some city leaders sparred over it. Councilmember Lowell Hurst, who supports the Rail Trail business plan, said he thought it was crucial for Watsonville leaders to speak as one body before the next RTC meeting.
Not long ago, the Watsonville City Council passed a resolution in support of rail. Hurst and Councilmember Aurelio Gonzalez, the RTC chairperson, wanted another such vote of confidence before next week’s decision.
“I think we need another go at it, because they’re going to have another meeting, and they couldn’t decide what to do last time, and I just don’t want to see the Pajaro Valley left behind, socially, economically, transportation justice-wise,” Hurst said Tuesday night.
The council decided to call a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Friday to vote on a resolution. Hurst and Gonzalez wanted to approve a resolution in favor of the business plan during Tuesday’s council meeting but were too late to add the item to the agenda, according to Mayor Jimmy Dutra.
The RTC’s 6-6 tie vote earlier this month meant that, at least for now, its staff won’t be directed to seek federal and/or state funding to complete preliminary engineering and environmental reviews for electric passenger rail along the corridor.
Although the issue is set to return before RTC commissioners next week, at which point they could decide to vote differently, the failed vote in early April marked a drastic public setback for the proposal, putting its future in doubt and raising alarm among supporters of a train and trail vision.
The tie vote came after the RTC — which is made up of county supervisors, local elected officials and members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metro transit agency — in February approved a staff report, by a 9-3 vote, that pointed to electric rail as the “preferred local alternative” transit option for the corridor.
Still, concerns over future costs and how to pay for a train surfaced. Even some members who voted in favor of moving ahead in February were skeptical. Patrick Mulhearn, a staff member who sometimes represents Supervisor Zach Friend on the RTC, was among them. By early April he was one of the six commissioners who voted against the business plan.
“My real issue is the opportunity cost of pursuing rail,” Mulhearn said at the April 1 meeting. “It means that we’re not talking about other things that we could be implementing right now, with money that we already have.”
Longtime opponents of rail have argued that a train along the corridor is too costly and will be underutilized. To them, the failed April vote marked a welcome step in the right direction.
“It’s about time the commissioners listened to the people,” said Bud Colligan, a board member of trail-only advocacy group Greenway. “Perhaps now we can find a plan to move forward together.”
With the future of a train along the coastal corridor in doubt, supporters rail supporters have ramped up efforts to spread their message.
About 30 proponents of a train and trail vision, including Hurst, gathered at Aptos Village Wednesday morning, hoping to rally support for the project and capture the attention of RTC members who voted against the business plan. Among the targets: Mulhearn and Friend.
Friend “needs to get the point,” said Sally Arnold, a board member for Friends of the Rail & Trail, the advocacy group that organized the event. Arnold said she wanted to prove to Friend that the Rail & Trail is a popular project in his district, and one that he should get behind.
“We’re here trying to demonstrate how clean light rail will be good for Aptos Village,” she said, adding that visitors could arrive via train and spend money at local businesses without clogging up roads.
By Isabella Cueto, Patrick Riley
To read the original piece on Lookout click Rail Trail coming to a head: Supporters make big push to keep rail on track heading into key vote next week
APTOS — Wednesday morning, members of Friends of the Rail and Trail ]rallied along the rail corridor in Aptos Village to send a message that despite the tied 6-6 vote at the last Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meeting, their advocacy isn’t going anywhere.
On April 1, RTC continued an agenda item around the business plan for electric passenger rail that would span more than 30 miles from Davenport to Pajaro. This decision was made despite the commission’s 9-3 vote in February to accept electric passenger rail as its “locally preferred alternative.” Patrick Mulhearn, the alternate for Zach Friend, voted against the business plan. Mulhearn cited his distaste for staff’s definition of “feasibility,” feeling it to be inaccurate that the project itself was feasible at this time.
“It’s really important that we emphasize the disparity between options for north and south county, and that’s why we’re here in Aptos Village,” Friends of the Rail and Trail president Faina Segal said. “Zach Friend and his alternate Patrick Mulhearn voted no and they aren’t listening to his constituents and they aren’t listening to the people who live in District 2 who really need better transportation options.”
Segal listed the need for space for emergency vehicles currently clogged by citizen and visitor cars, the priority to reduce traffic, issues around parking locally and the opportunity to bring people down into the villages in places such as Aptos and Capitola which she considers “the heart of Santa Cruz County” as reasons to support electric passenger rail.
“We will continue to advocate until we get a different vote,” Segal said. “We won’t go away, we’re not going to let them forget about this. It will not be shelved.”
Lowell Hurst, former Watsonville mayor and current city councilmember, stood just feet from Segal holding a sign that said “tourists without traffic.” Hurst told the Sentinel he felt it to be his municipal responsibility to ensure access and equal opportunity in transportation.
“I’m a lucky retiree and I get to go where I want to go. If I could come to Santa Cruz more often and not have a car, maybe put my bike on a rail car and enjoy the best of both worlds that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Hurst said. “I know that many of our workers in Watsonville would really like relief from traffic congestion and they would like to be able to maybe even work while they ride.”
Hurst mentioned Transportation Agency for Monterey County’s plans to expand its branch line that would encompass both buses and light rail. Currently, according to the agency’s website, the project is on hold due to a lack of funding.
“If our residents, particularly our disabled residents and our elderly residents, could have the comfort of riding and not worry about riding they could go visit their families. Many disabled folks could be able to have jobs where they can’t afford to live and they could be able to get transportation back and forth,” Hurst said. “We have seen this in other places all over the world. There’s really no reason we can’t do it right here on the Central Coast.”
The idea of weaving in all forms of transportation — walking, biking and riding on a passenger rail — is exactly what Friends of the Rail and Trail is in favor of, said former president Sally Arnold.
“Our point is that the rail is the spine and the buses are the ribs that come off the spine,” she said. “It’s an integrated system. There are some people who are trying to make this as if it’s rail or buses. It’s not either/or, you like trains or you like bikes. It all works together. We want it all.”
Senior Cara Lamb is one of the individuals who would directly benefit from a county rail system. A METRO rider for nearly 30 years, Lamb has been affected by the downtown store closures in Santa Cruz and now has to ride into Capitola for most of her material needs. She has not driven in the area since 1992 and now that journey is approximately two hours each way through the bus system.
“Let’s say I want to go to Capitola village. The fastest way to get to Capitola village would be first I walk half a mile to a bus stop. Then I take a bus to downtown. Then I take another bus to the mall. Then I walk to Capitola village because waiting for the bus that goes there, assuming it’s even running anymore, takes too long,” Lamb said. “I could walk a shorter distance to a train station and just be in Capitola village in 15 minutes.”
Beyond better serving residents, a rail system in addition to trail on either side would fulfill the need to treat the county’s visitors kindly, voiced local Mary Jane Slade.
“Travel is one of the staples of our economy,” she said. “This is one of the most beautiful trail rides. So let’s use it, let’s get ’em out there, through our county. (We) can make it pleasant for everyone and not be stuck in traffic.”
Establishing an electric passenger rail system will bring Santa Cruz County up to snuff with incoming national environmental policies, resident Liz Ann Keys said.
“We just need to be in sync, especially in California we need to be in sync with environmental change,” Keys said. “It doesn’t seem radical. It seems like it should have happened a long time ago.”
Aptos resident Barry Scott — who recorded the procession down the train tracks in front of the village and helped to start chants such as “Transportation justice!” and “No redlining!” — is passionate about using those changing policies and funding efforts under the Biden administration.
“This is an educational effort,” he said of Wednesday’s event. “People don’t read the business plan … it’s our job to get people interested and get people involved and use that moment. Absolutely it’s a look-at-me kind of event … we’re passionate about the messaging here too. This transportation justice is no joke. We are not kidding.”
Scott has been studying the main objections to the rail and trail alternative in an effort to support the grassroots organization. The idea that the county can’t afford the rail system, a complaint made by many RTC members in the past, can be debunked by the additional dollars going to equitable transportation through the current presidential direction, he said.
“This was feasible under Trump, it’s crazy right now,” Scott said. “It could be affordable. It will be electric, so it’s very clean … Opponents argue we don’t have the ridership. The business plan includes actually doing a careful ridership study … these ridership numbers are preliminary.”
Additionally, if Caltrans’ 2018 State Rail Plan funding, predicted to equal $140 billion for the next 20 years through federal, state, regional and private sourcing, goes unused by Santa Cruz County it will be used by other interested counties, Scott argued.
“We don’t get that back,” he said.
By Melissa Hartman
To read the original piece of Santa Cruz Sentinel click Rail and trail advocates rally in Aptos Village