(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Interim’ rail trail? Commission could open saga’s next chapter Thursday

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission is slated to vote Thursday on whether to study the option of creating a temporary path for bikers and pedestrians along the rail corridor, which could involve removing existing railroad tracks.

With plans for electric passenger rail effectively in a “timeout,” the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission will reconvene Thursday to consider another option in the ever-evolving rail trail picture: a so-called “interim trail” that could see railroad tracks temporarily removed.

Commissioners are slated to vote on whether to study a new option for at least certain segments of the rail corridor: an interim trail that would create a path for bikers and pedestrians while more permanent options continue to be evaluated.

A plan to move forward with a business plan for electric passenger rail — previously identified as the locally preferred alternative — failed in April in a tie vote among the 12 commissioners.

Afterward, Sarah Christensen, a senior transportation engineer with the RTC, said that rail transit is “not happening at this time,” and is “more being considered a long-term investment.”

Thursday’s vote will decide whether RTC staff can begin evaluating the interim trail alternative for two segments of the rail corridor. The first is Segment 12 of the Coastal Rail Trail, which spans State Park Drive to Rio Del Mar Boulevard in Aptos along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. The second segment is along the Capitola Trestle bridge.

Passionate voices on both sides of the debate contributed to public comment ahead of Thursday’s meeting — with railbanking, the process in which railroad tracks are removed temporarily, of particular concern.

Friends of the Rail Trail, a pro-rail advocacy group, asked via board chair Faina Segal that RTC staff consider “the full costs and fundability of the temporary removal of the rail line, construction of the interim trail, restoration of the rail line and reconstruction of a permanent trail.” Its statement also alleged that railbanking often leads to tracks being removed and never restored.

Meanwhile, Aptos’ Jack Brown was among several residents of Aptos and Capitola who expressed their support for the interim trail.

“I fully support the decision to give the proper research to an interim trail,” Brown wrote. “Since the funding simply does not exist to create a train system in the next several decades, we really need to concentrate on revitalizing Metro, Lift and Paracruz, look at more solutions to eliminate commutes between South County and points north (e.g. more county offices being located in South County) and opening the unused rail corridor to inner and inter-community active transportation.”