Supervisors to study Greenway initiative before adopting it or placing it on the June ballot
The board of supervisors on Tuesday voted to study an initiative that, if passed, would change the county’s general plan away from using the Santa Cruz Branch Line for rail and toward a bike-and-pedestrian path. The measure, which county officials certified Monday, must either be placed on the June ballot or adopted without a countywide vote when the report is completed next month.
An initiative seeking to lock in planning for the Santa Cruz Branch railroad line — making it a pedestrian and bike path — passed another hurdle this week, but on Tuesday, the county board of supervisors voted to further study the issue before choosing to either adopt the initiative without a countywide vote, or to place it on the June ballot.
County Clerk Tricia Webber officially certified the Greenway initiative on Monday evening, setting up the vote on what to do next. The initiative would change the county’s general plan away from its freight and commuter rail focus and toward a process called “railbanking.” This would allow for the possible removal of rails — and the development of a trail — with the idea it could potentially be replaced later.
Webber said regardless of what the report states, the board of supervisors is unable to make any alterations.
“It must remain as it is now,” she said. “They either adopt it with the language in the petition when it was in circulation or they put it to the voters.”
Webber also said that the report — which is due back by March 2 — is to be purely informational, with the purpose of clarifying the initiative’s impact.
“The report is just to clarify how they choose to proceed: put it on the ballot, or adopt right away,” she said.
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The county and Regional Transportation Commission — which owns the tracks — are separate entities, and it’s unclear how much the initiative, if adopted, would tie the RTC’s hands on the matter.
RTC spokesperson Shannon Munz, when asked about its impact, said that the agency “has not done a legal analysis on the Greenway initiative and what requirements the RTC would have if it passes.”
Those in favor tout the more than 16,000 signatures — more than 13,000 of which were certified — as proof of strong countywide support. But those opposed say the measure will stop any possibility of a commuter train between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and current plans to have a trail alongside the tracks will serve everyone’s needs. They also claim railbanking is misleading, as it’s extremely rare for tracks, once removed, to be replaced.
“The thing with public transportation and active transportation is that they work really well together,” said Mike Wool, a board member of Friends of the Rail Trail, adding that one could easily get from the train to their destination using the trail.
A UCSC student, Wool believes that the trail is a great addition, but only if you live in Santa Cruz or Capitola.
“It’s a great option for someone like me, who lives on the Westside and can jump on my skateboard and go down the street to work,” he said. “But for residents of Watsonville, that’s not a realistic commuting option at all. It’s somewhat offensive, honestly, to say, ‘Why don’t you ride your bike 20 miles each way?’ It’s very much a North County solution and leaves out a significant chunk of the South County population.”
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But Greenway board member Bud Colligan said he believes a train simply can’t work.
“We don’t have the money for a train,” he said. “We’re not against trains but it would need to be feasible and fundable.”
Colligan added he understands the trail the initiative envisions would not solve congestion problems on Highway 1, but believes that it could alleviate some of the traffic issues.
“It’s probably true that people won’t commute from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, but they could go from Watsonville to Cabrillo,” he said. “We estimate that over two million people per year would use Greenway, and that would help the traffic.”
Also, Colligan says that even if he thought a train was possible, it would not work well.
“If someone takes the train and gets off at Natural Bridges, it’s still three miles to UCSC. If they get off at Simpkins Swim Center, it’s still 1.7 miles to Dominican,” he said. “We can’t afford it and if we could, it would be a bad use of our resources.”
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Possibly complicating matters, the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission is scheduled to discuss a proposal regarding a counterinitiative on Thursday. As currently worded, it would make it clear that a commuter rail and trail combination is the preferred action for the mostly unused rail line.
However, the support for such a move by the commission is unclear, and a staff report prepared by the RTC states it is unclear whether state law even permits the commission to place an initiative on the ballot.