The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meets on Zoom.
The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meets for a public hearing on the controversial Rail Trail project via videoconference on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
(Patrick Riley/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Rail Trail hearing previews just how contentious coming debates on project might be

Thursday’s meeting of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission showed just how controversial picking a transit option for the 32-mile coastal corridor might be.

The commission, a collection of government officials from around the county, will be asked next month to accept a staff study that recommends some type of electric passenger rail as the preferred transit alternative for the corridor, running alongside a recreation path.

During their lengthy public hearing in advance of the Feb. 4 vote, a few commissioners signaled their opposition to a train option — while others hinted at their support for it, offering an early glimpse at just how tight the vote might be.

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“For people to say a trail and a bike only, and no freight and passenger service on a rail, I don’t think that’s really a reasonable option,” said Fourth District Supervisor Greg Caput, whose district includes part of Watsonville. “I don’t think that’s good for South County. I don’t think that’s going to help us ever get federal and state money.”

Residents would likely not commute to jobs via a trail or bicycle, he said. “I haven’t seen a lot of families that are actually walking or taking a bike for other than recreation.”

The project has long fueled impassioned discussions.

Some have advocated for the RTC to stay on track and move ahead with a vision for a train that connects Watsonville and Davenport, alongside a recreation path. They argue, among other things, that a train would help low-income, vulnerable populations in South County have access to more affordable transportation.

Others support a bike-and-pedestrian trail only, highlighting the higher costs of building and operating a train system.

Among the latter group is newly elected First District Supervisor Manu Koenig. Formerly the executive director for Greenway Santa Cruz County, a non-profit advocating for a train-free corridor, he now holds a seat on the RTC and did not mince words during his first meeting as a RTC board member.

“One of the most pro-train voices on this commission is no longer here, because the voters spoke and put me in this seat,” Koenig said, referring to his election victory over three-term incumbent John Leopold last fall.

Like other opponents of a train along the corridor, Koenig argued that it would not be used by enough riders to be feasible and that there are not enough funds for it.

A section of the old coastal rail line in Santa Cruz County that is part of the 32-mile coastal corridor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As a vocal opponent to a train vision during his campaign, Koenig’s comments likely came as no surprise. But a few of his colleagues, too, shared concerns about the rail option Thursday.

Scotts Valley council member and RTC board member Randy Johnson said he would reserve judgment, but highlighted worries about continuing to spend more money “when this may be going nowhere.”

“I don’t want this to become a transportational Vietnam where we start with advisors, and then we start with sending more troops and then we have a Gulf of Tonkin, and before you know it, you have a terrible situation,” he said.

The hearing included a presentation from RTC staff reiterating why electric passenger rail is their top pick for mass transit along the corridor, as well as comments from community members.

The RTC 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. Regardless of which transit option they choose on Feb. 4, much work would remain, including preparing a business and financial plan.

RTC board member and Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson said though he believes it is “good public policy” to preserve the option to build a passenger rail, there needs to be a focus on “fiscal responsibility.”

He said he doesn’t think another ballot measure to build rail service is fiscally responsible or politically realistic at this time.

“But I fully support maintaining the freight service to Watsonville, because it is vital to the city’s economy,” McPherson said. “I also want to see commuters from South County have greatly reduced travel times, which is the key component of all of this, which we can deliver more affordably, in far less time than building passenger rail service. And we can do that with the bus-on-shoulder project (on Highway 1), I believe.”

McPherson was referencing the possibility of bus-on-shoulder transit along Highway 1 — something that transportation officials are considering.

McPherson added that the rail corridor is an “invaluable public asset” and that the community should be able to use it sooner than later.

“Which means we need to put this debate to rest and move forward on projects that are financially feasible and can be delivered I think in the foreseeable future,” he said.

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Capitola council member Jacques Bertrand agreed with McPherson.

He pointed to issues in the community that need to be addressed, from homelessness to “horrible” road conditions, and lack the necessary funding.

“We have to come up with something that is financially feasible,” Bertrand said. “I completely agree that we need to deal with the traffic issues, but the ways that we’re trying to think of that in terms of Highway 1 bus-on-shoulder and other methods, I think are the way to go. They’re so much cheaper.”

Some on the board kept their cards closer to the vest and others urged their colleagues to keep the big picture in mind.

“This is a plan for the future,” said Mike Rotkin of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District.

A train, he said, wouldn’t run up and down the corridor in the next couple years, instead the plan looks at what should ultimately happen along the stretch in the next 30 or 50 years.

“So the question we’re being asked here I think is really: What kind of a long term plan should we have for the transit use of this corridor?” Rotkin said.

Go Deeper
  • View the full Rail Trail report
    The most recent version of the “Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis and Rail Network Integration Study” dives deep into the project. This file might take some time to load.