Quick Take:

Measure D is giving us all a headache. Part of the problem is perspective, 1st District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig writes. Our views are shaped by where we live. People on the Westside experience the trail differently than those in Aptos or Watsonville. Koenig explains why and suggests we leave our own neighborhoods and look at the coastal corridor from another viewpoint. He supports Measure D, and says we need to respect each others’ differences and be open to changing our minds.

Feeling anxious, angry, hopeless?

Get outside and go for a walk. Or better yet, a bike ride. It doesn’t matter where you go, or what you ride, because inevitably, your circulation will improve, the scenery will change, and you’ll see something to make you smile, like a happy dog with a lolling tongue.

Getting outside changes our perspective, and heaven knows we all need that, particularly those of us wrapped up in the election and the hotly debated Measure D, which asks us to decide if we want to continue with a rail and trail plan or support a train-free greenway on the coastal corridor from Watsonville to Davenport.

Experience shapes our politics and our opinions. Measure D reflects that. Depending on where you live in Santa Cruz County, you experience the corridor in a particular way. That influences your view.

We’ve missed that vital point in some of our discussions and sadly, too often, this debate has devolved into name-calling and demonizing people. None of this is productive and misses the simple point that we have different experiences of the rail corridor.

If you live on the Westside, you know the rail corridor as a wide, open place. This geographical simplicity is why trail construction started here. So of course, many Westsiders think the current rail-trail plan is dandy. They’d love to add a train to the mix so they can whisk off to the Beach Boardwalk, Seabright or Aptos for dinner and amusement.

If you live in Capitola, you know the corridor as the Capitola Trestle, that iconic structure in the middle of town that the teenagers walk to school on. Naturally, most residents here want to see the trestle preserved and safe for bikes and pedestrians. A train? It was loud and shook timbers down on the houses when it most recently ran in 2010. Some people still remember that noise and don’t want it back. Who needs it?

The trestle near Hidden Beach in Aptos, one of 37 trestles along the coastal rail corridor.
The trestle near Hidden Beach in Aptos, one of 37 trestles along the coastal rail corridor. Credit: Via Aptost.Cutest

If you live in Aptos or La Selva, you cross the tracks to get down to the beach. Unsurprisingly, most Aptosians oppose the rail-trail plan because its fences would cut them off from the ocean.

Aptos is also by far the hardest segment to figure out. It will require six new bridges and roughly $50 million to build a trail next to rail. So of course, most Aptosians think doing both is a pipe dream.

If you live in Watsonville, you know the rail corridor as the industrial side of town. You probably never walk there, but if someone says it could be the solution to your traffic headache, why not give it a try?

The more of the corridor you see, the deeper the understanding of its complexity you gain.

Looking toward Loma Prieta from Harkins Slough during a tour of the coastal rail corridor with RTC staff.
Looking toward Loma Prieta from Harkins Slough during a tour of the coastal rail corridor with RTC staff. Credit: Via Manu Koenig

I had the opportunity to ride a rail maintenance car from Harkins Slough outside of Watsonville to Aptos Village last September. Along the way, the executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), Guy Preston, and RTC senior transportation engineer Sarah Christensen pointed out pending projects and plans to me and my colleague, Mike Rotkin, a former Santa Cruz mayor.

What we saw was how the rail corridor had been cut across a beautiful and extreme landscape, one crossed by many small streams and deep coastal gorges. Industrialists clear-cut redwoods to build the train and lay out the tracks in 1876 using underpaid labor. Those industrialists didn’t give a flip about Mother Earth. They toppled trees and threw up 100-foot-tall trestles without asking anybody for permission.

Photo of a logging train in the 1890s, around the time the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line was established.
Photo of a logging train in the 1890s, around the time the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line was established. Credit: Via Covello & Covello

Today, in a world of multimillion-dollar environmental impact reports and prevailing-wage labor, it looks uncertain to me that we can maintain the corridor for a train. Freight north of Watsonville is already out of service and has been since 2017. The cost of repairs is at least $60 million. That’s money we don’t have and that would come from the state or federal government only if we had viable freight commerce. We don’t.

Our standards today don’t allow us to steamroller salamanders or shoo off nesting bald eagles. Climate change eroding the cliffs at Manresa and raising sea level in the Watsonville sloughs will not make things easier. Perhaps, with focus and a light touch, we can restore the corridor enough to walk and ride a bike, but it is difficult to imagine how a train could ever come back here.

The harder some people try to shove both a train and a trail into this space, the louder others are going to yell that it doesn’t friggin’ fit.

Voting no on D will not magically generate the $1 billion needed to build a train. It will just perpetuate the conflict over one. I’m voting yes on Measure D because it is an off-ramp from this conflict. It will change the county’s General Plan to build a greenway trail — something we can complete, something that makes sense to me based on my experience of this space. If we push forward with a plan we’ve had for 30 years, we will run into more funding constraints and more unacceptable environmental impacts.

The rail corridor between two mobile home parks in Live Oak.
The rail corridor between two mobile home parks in Live Oak. Credit: Via Manu Koenig

We could arrive at sufficient agreement as soon as June 8. It could take longer. We might need to wait until the current environmental impact reports are finished to finally sort out how we will use this corridor.

Regardless of the outcome, the best thing we can do is respect where our neighbor is coming from. That means looking at the trail from their viewpoint, crossing each others’ trestles and remaining open to new data.

Don’t vote for or against D because others influence you or because you are attached to a long-held opinion.

Go walk the corridor and decide for yourself.

Manu Koenig has served as 1st District Supervisor for Santa Cruz County since 2020. He has worked for several technology startups, including Paystand in Scotts Valley and Civinomics, which he founded in 2011 to help citizens propose and vote on new policies online. He was executive director of Santa Cruz County Greenway and worked on Measure L in Capitola. A county native and avid surfer and cyclist, he attended Stanford University and currently lives in Live Oak.

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