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