Rail Trail coming to a head: Supporters make big push to keep rail on track heading into Thursday RTC meeting
In a last-ditch effort to get the rail momentum back on track, proponents of having rail and trail down the coast of Santa Cruz County rallied Wednesday in Aptos, forming a human train along the tracks to show public support for the project.
After a business plan for passenger rail failed to garner enough votes from Santa Cruz County’s Regional Transportation Commission last month, supporters of a train and recreational path along the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor are on the offensive — sending letters and making their voices heard.
6:32 PM, May 03, 2021This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that discussion about the Rail Trail business plan at the Thursday, May 6, Regional Transportation Commission meeting is set to be informational only.
Commissioners on Thursday, May 6, will hear a report from RTC staff on the status of state funding for the study that identified electric passenger rail as the locally preferred alternative for the old rail corridor. Caltrans had pitched in $100,000 to pay for the study, but after the tie vote by the commission last month meant the business plan for a train wouldn’t be accepted, questions arose about whether the RTC would need to pay back the money.
RTC staff have since discussed the issue with Caltrans, which determined that the money wouldn’t need to be repaid. So although the commission is not expected to immediately revisit the business plan at Thursday’s meeting, a commissioner could request to have the business plan put on a future agenda for another vote.
For that to happen, however, the commission would need to have another vote to bring the issue back, according to RTC staff.
Nonetheless, train proponents, in an effort to get the rail momentum back on track, 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 meeting.
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“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, 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.”
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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.