Quick Take:

A quick primer to get you caught up on Santa Cruz County’s most controversial infrastructure project, which celebrates a big milestone Thursday as a segment formally opens for bike and pedestrian use.

A small group of residents and public officials gathered virtually Thursday for the ribbon cutting for “Segment 7″ of Santa Cruz County’s Coastal Rail Trail, a stretch of freshly paved path stretching from Natural Bridges Drive to Pacific Avenue.

A pre-recorded video showed residents enjoying the trail on scooters, bikes, in wheelchairs and on foot. It culminated in Santa Cruz City Council Member Justin Cummings cutting the ribbon as members of the Santa Cruz and Harbor High School marching bands played, and representatives from the city, Ecology Action, the Coastal Conservancy, Friends of the Rail Trail, and Bike Santa Cruz cheered.

For a moment, it looked as if the entire 32-mile-long project was smooth sailing ahead.

But Segment 7, all of 2.1 miles long, is just the beginning of Santa Cruz County’s most ambitious, most famous, and most controversial transportation infrastructure project. Everyone here knows something about it, but its complex and convoluted evolution can have the most plugged-in locals scratching their heads.

The project began when the County Regional Transportation Commission began trying to purchase a rail corridor stretching from Davenport to Watsonvillle in 1990. The purchase was eventually completed in 2012, and was largely paid for with $10.2 million from a state fund specifically designated for passenger rail.

Countywide debates over how to best use this land have been raging ever since, and the historic opening of Segment 7 is a good opportunity to take stock of what is known and what lies ahead.

With that, let’s hop on the bike for a ride through time.

The corridor

The parcel of land at the center of everything is the 32-mile stretch of train track, running from Watsonville to Davenport. The right-of-way along the track ranges from 25 feet to more than 100 feet in width.

The train track itself was originally built in 1876. Various freight trains used to run along that track — coal was hauled up to the Davenport cement plant, and cement was sent back. It used to connect with San Jose and San Francisco, and at times hosted passenger trains.

Most recently, it was a freight line before freight traffic decreased and the Santa Cruz RTC began eyeing the parcel.

Segment 7 is the only part of the trail that is currently completed, with the exception of the much shorter San Lorenzo River Parkway bridge trail near the Boardwalk. Those recently completed segments connect with existing bike routes, including West Cliff Drive’s and the Wilder Ranch path, but — if ever completed — the 32-mile trail would provide an additional uninterrupted bike corridor.

Satellite view of the rail corridor in Santa Cruz County.
Satellite view of the rail corridor in Santa Cruz County. Credit: Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

Two visions: Rail and trail vs. trail only

From the moment of the purchase, passenger rail was always a key part of the plan from the RTC’s perspective, because the state funds used were specifically designated to support that purpose.

But community opinions on what should be done with the rail line and adjacent land got sorted into two proposals: an active commuter rail line with a bike and pedestrian trail running alongside it, or a dedicated trail with plenty of room for bikes, e-bikes, pedestrians, strollers — but no train.

Supporters of both visions are vocal, fervent and active in local politics.

Friends of the Rail Trail is the most prominent group that has supported the rail-and-trail vision, and this group is supported by a long list of regional governments and nonprofits, including the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, Ecology Action, and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

Proponents of the rail and trail say the addition of a train to the trail will provide a climate-friendly and equitable form of transportation that will also reduce congestion on freeways. Friends of the Rail Trail projects a daily ridership of 7,000 — a large number of them South County residents commuting north — taking thousands of cars off the road.

On the other side, supporters of the trail-only vision have largely coalesced behind Greenway Santa Cruz County, a non-profit advocating for a train-free corridor. Manu Koenig, formerly Greenway’s executive director and one of the most prominent advocates of this vision, was just elected to the county board of supervisors this year.

Bud Colligan, a Greenway board member, told a local radio station earlier this year that the group’s focus is on supporting local politicians who favor the trail-only option. “Eventually, public support for this project will collapse, and we’re just waiting for that to happen,” Colligan told KAZU.

Greenway supporters proclaim nearly identical goals as the Friends of the Rail Trail: Safe, affordable, and equitable transportation. But they do not believe a train is the right method to this end, claiming it will be much too expensive — with $470 million in construction costs alone — too environmentally disruptive, and attract insufficient ridership.

Rail+trail winning, for now, with an important vote ahead

The ultimate decision on the rail corridor is up to the county Regional Transportation Commission. RTC’s leadership commission includes all members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, one member each of the Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Capitola city councils and three members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, as well as the CalTrans District 5 Director.

The process of evaluating and planning has involved several public open houses — four in the past year — and opportunities for stakeholder input. But they have consistently been building toward a rail and trail option, with two recent developments more or less sealing the deal.

In 2018, the RTC conducted a year-long analysis called the “Unified Corridor Study” evaluating what transportation options would most benefit the county as a whole. The conclusion of this work was that the rail corridor project should include some kind of public transit, but left open the option of a bus line or other alternatives to a train. The RTC decided to leave the tracks in place and proceed with construction of the trail portion of the project.

Over the past year and a half the RTC has been evaluating the different forms this transit could take in another report called the “Transit Corridor Alternative Analysis.”

That work will conclude at the end of this year and culminate in a staff recommendation to the RTC board on what transit would best serve the county. The board will then vote on the decision in February.

The conclusion of RTC staff in the Alternate Analysis report, as of now, is that a light rail or commuter rail train are the best options.

Neither come cheap, with a total construction cost estimate of $470 million and yearly operating costs of $25 million for each, but the costs are comparable to a bus system, the most prominent alternative. They also scored better in the RTC’s projected ridership and technical feasibility analyses, and in promoting “active transportation” — meaning it’s easier to bring a bike onto a train than a bus.

A map of a  light rail transit route from the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
A map of a preliminary proposal of a light rail transit route from a draft of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commissions Urban Transit Alternatives Analysis. Credit: Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

Is the debate over?

The RTC is not currently considering any trail-only plans, and hasn’t since the conclusion of the Unified Corridor study in 2019.

But all the construction currently ongoing — plus the completed construction of Segment 7, as well as the new bike trail at the San Lorenzo River trestle — is focused solely on the bike and pedestrian trail. There are many hoops left to jump through, including a business plan and environmental impact analysis, before any serious work will begin on transit plans, light rail or otherwise.

Pedestrians walking on a paved path.
Bambi and and Stan Bovee enjoy the brand new trail rail path on segment 7. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

Koenig’s election to the county board places him automatically on the RTC commission as well, and gives him a vote on the future of the project.

The wheels are in motion for some kind of transit to speed alongside the 32-mile trail. Changing that trajectory at this point is unlikely, but not impossible. Many in Santa Cruz will certainly continue to fight the current plan.

Either way, it will be many more years before the much-talked-about Rail Trail becomes a daily reality for people of Santa Cruz County.

The trail portion of the project could be completed by 2030 at the soonest, and passenger trains aren’t expected to begin operating — if they ever do — until 2031 or 2033.

Do you have more questions about the Coastal Rail Trail project? Send them our way at news@lookoutlocal.com and we’ll try to get them answered and share those in our daily newsletter, the Morning Lookout. You can sign up for that above.

Follow Mallory Pickett on: Twitter. Mallory brings deep expertise in environmental issues to Lookout, as well as national reporting experience that she will now apply in her hometown of Santa Cruz. She...