Quick Take:

Ryan Coonerty dreams of getting hit by a meteor rather than face another discussion about Measure D. The 3rd District Supervisor says the intensity of debate around Measure D is pointless given one stark political reality: No matter how the vote goes, without compromises, Santa Cruz County won’t build anything for decades.

I’m haunted by a recurring dream.

A meteor will destroy our planet in an hour. People are in the street hugging, crying, saying final goodbyes. I’m about to walk out my door and join them, when a new message pops up on my phone. I pause to read it, hoping that the government’s last-minute mission to destroy the meteor worked.

Instead, I see an email urging me to support Greenway. Within seconds, I get another one, asking me to vote No on D.

I set down my phone, walk outside, and welcome the meteor as it pierces the atmosphere, content that I will never have to talk about the rail trail again.

When I wake from my dream, I’m grateful that, at least for now, there is no meteor. There are, however, dozens of messages in my inbox vociferously supporting and opposing Measure D.

For the approximately 1,000 people who really, really care about this issue and who have been engaged in a multiyear campaign to win over their fellow Santa Cruzans, you can skip the next paragraph. For the 284,000 other county residents who are wondering why the width of a bike trail has become the singular issue in our community and why they should care, here is a quick primer.

Ten years ago, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) purchased the rail line, a 32-mile corridor from Watsonville to Davenport, for $14.2 million. Since then, county and city leaders, planners and citizens have spent untold hours — and hundreds of thousands of dollars (potentially millions, depending on how you count) — studying transportation options in the corridor. Segments of the trail are finished and well-used. Other segments remain unbuilt. The RTC has piloted numerous transit prototypes. We’ve exhaustively debated whether to provide transit and a trail or to cover the tracks, as Measure D proposes, to build a larger trail.

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Debates like this happen in local government all the time. We hash out competing needs and values through complicated decision-making processes. Regardless of my position on a particular issue, I think it is a good sign when rooms full of people argue and, most important, care about the future of our community.

But, the Greenway vs. rail-trail debate is different. It has become vitriolic and personal, damaging relationships between people I consider friends. It is painful to watch the debate spin out of control — especially when one understands how little will change regardless of the outcome of Measure D.

As both sides pour hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads in coming weeks, let’s consider the likely outcomes of the election.

The Yes Greenway logo

The first scenario is that Greenway wins convincingly and, most important, in every jurisdiction — Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola, Scotts Valley and the unincorporated areas. In this scenario, the RTC may move forward in the rail banking process.

I say may because Measure D doesn’t obligate the RTC to do so and, even if all 12 members vote to railbank (they are currently deadlocked 6-6), they don’t get final say. The ultimate decision rests with federal and state regulatory agencies.

The “Greenway wins big” scenario also has another problem: Roaring Camp Railroad, rail-trail advocates and others will likely argue that Measure D misled voters, and they will cite environmental and business reasons to maintain the tracks. They will tie up railbanking in those regulatory processes as well as the courts for decades. It took the City of Santa Cruz more than 20 years of controversy and litigation to build the Arana Gulch 1.1-mile bike path. Imagine the future battles over a 32-mile project.

The No on D logo

The second potential outcome is that voters reject Measure D across every jurisdiction. In this scenario, the RTC would continue to incrementally build trails next to the tracks and plan for rail service. However, Greenway advocates will argue that the No Way Greenway campaign misled voters and they will then actively oppose the tax increase necessary to fund transit. They will probably succeed and, for decades, meaningful train service will not occur.

The most likely outcome is that Measure D will narrowly pass or fail and the jurisdictions will be split (potentially, the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville in opposition to and mid-county in support of Measure D). In this scenario, the deadlock at the RTC will continue.

Regardless of the Measure D outcome, local officials and county supervisors who serve on the RTC will advocate based on how their constituents voted, not the county. That means RTC representatives from Santa Cruz and Watsonville and the supervisors from those areas will continue to support rail-trail, and mid-county representatives will continue to support Greenway. The RTC will remain split at 6-6. Progress will be incremental and the debate will rage on.

In other words, both sides can cause the other to lose, but neither can win.

3rd District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
3rd District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

This has been the case for years. I’ve tried to help negotiate a compromise, but like many issues in American politics, the polarization is intense. Each party is convinced their plan is righteous and the other side are the villains. Neither will accept compromise.

I realize that this analysis is destined to frustrate many because patience, complexity and compromise are not celebrated in our political environment. But I’ve learned in politics, parenting and business that failing to align expectations to reality is a recipe for disaster. I can only hope that my analysis will tamp down the divisions and maybe stop neighbors from questioning the humanity of their neighbor who has a different opinion.

I am going to vote no on Measure D because I think once you cover the tracks, transit in the corridor becomes politically impossible. Other reasonable people will vote yes because they believe that someday a wider trail will provide new transportation options. Fundamentally, we are likely not making any decisions. Rather, all this election does is allow us to express our preferences for when, if ever, the right legal, fiscal and political conditions exist.

Future decision-makers may ignore what we say and shake their heads at our obstinacy, but hopefully they will recognize that despite our disagreements, we cared enough about them to invest in a corridor that gave them valuable transportation options.

Meanwhile, metaphorical meteors are about to hit — climate change, homelessness, threats to democracy, the possible end of Roe vs. Wade and continued housing shortages, to name a few. These issues are going to require us to work together, compromise a lot, and not spend a minute relitigating Measure D.

Ryan Coonerty is a Santa Cruz County Supervisor. As evidenced by this article, he is not seeking reelection.

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