Rail Trail Q&A: Passionate perspectives from both sides of these tricky Santa Cruz County tracks

A section of the coastal rail corridor overlooking Capitola in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In advance of a key hearing on the project today, Lookout sat down with leaders on both sides of the Rail Trail debate to discuss their perspectives on the project that has stoked fierce dialogue for decades.

An ambitious and highly controversial transportation project years in the making — most know it as the Rail Trail — has birthed two rivaling viewpoints among Santa Cruz County stakeholders, elected officials and residents.

There are those who would like to see the old 32-mile coastal rail corridor from Watsonville to Davenport connected via a train and recreation path, and those who are advocating for a bike and pedestrian path only.

Lookout Santa Cruz sat down individually with leaders on both sides of the issue — Mark Mesiti-Miller, vice chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail, and Bud Colligan, board member for Greenway Santa Cruz County — to discuss their perspectives on the project, which will be the subject of a public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 14, and a key vote on Feb. 4.

Their answers to Lookout’s questions have been grouped together to show their differing viewpoints fairly and equally. Lookout also edited the responses for clarity and brevity.

What’s your elevator pitch of your vision for the coastal corridor?

Mark Mesiti-Miller: People are suffering due to the lack of mobility in our community, because the opportunity for access to good jobs and education is diminished. And we have a spectacular rail corridor that connects the two population centers of our county together in a way that allows 100% of the population to use it, regardless of age or ability or weather, to get around in a way that you don’t need a car. We ought to use it to the fullest extent possible. It’s really important that we take advantage of every opportunity to improve social equity and fight climate change and improve the opportunities for people in our community.

Bud Colligan, board member of Greenway Santa Cruz County.
Bud Colligan, board member of Greenway Santa Cruz County.
(Provided by Bud Colligan)

Bud Colligan: It will provide a wide, multi-use trail that will move the largest number of people at the least cost than any option. We have enough data today, after the passenger rail feasibility study in 2015, the Unified Corridor Investment Study in 2018, and the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis of this year.

And we don’t need any more analysis to know that we can’t afford it as a population, as a tax base.

How do you know what form of transportation people want on the coastal corridor?

MM: I have been working on this project for 20 years, and over the years, people repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for both [rail and trail]. The evidence for that is in the public comments [to the Regional Transportation Commission] … This is a broadly, widely accepted and supported project.

BC: The No. 1 piece of evidence is that 17,967 people just voted for Manu Koenig. The train versus the trail was … one of the primary issues in the campaign. The second evidence is 2,526 voters in Capitola voted for Measure L in 2018, which was to reject the RTC train plan, and use the Capitola trestles for bikes and pedestrians. Third piece of real evidence is 86% of the (Santa Cruz County) Business Council voted in favor of trail only. The fourth piece of evidence is that 10,000 people signed a petition for trail-only.

Do you remember what brought you over to your side of the debate and made you so passionate about it?

Mark Mesiti-Miller, vice chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail
(Provided by Mark Mesiti-Miller)

BC: Doing all the research and walking the 32 miles of the corridor. I realized back in 2015, and I did a presentation in 2015, showing that this was not possible.

MM: For me, it’s never been about which side of this issue I want to be on. Having more options for mobility is better than having fewer options for mobility, period.

Do you see this project as being primarily for commuters, for recreation and tourism or both?

BC: I see it as an active transportation corridor that will be highly used by commuters and also for recreational use. It will be mobbed on the weekends, but it will also be actively used during the week for commuting. And over time, as we would get more money, there are ways in which you can just continue to increase the safety of the line, you know, by doing under- and overpasses over busy streets.

MM: I think it’ll be widely used by many people. The state rail plan basically envisions connecting the entire state with a robust … rail-based passenger rail system, that will serve 13 times as many people as are currently moving via rail in California now. Tourists from all over the state will come to Santa Cruz, like they’ve been doing forever, but [will use the rail] instead of coming here in their car and trying to find a place to park and congesting our roads and freeways. Commuters will use it, of course, because you don’t have to find parking, you can save money.

Watch today's hearing
  • The fate of the Rail Trail project is up to the Regional Transportation Commission. Its leadership 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 Jan. 14 RTC board meeting starts at 9 a.m., and the hearing will start no sooner than 9:30 a.m.

Do you see a scenario in which taxpayers would have to pay increased taxes of some form or another to make this vision a reality?

MM: That’s a question that hasn’t been asked and can’t be answered at this time. I think that there’s a possibility that some local share would have to be generated, but how that local share would be generated has not been determined.

BC: Yes, it’s required. We don’t have the capital and we don’t have the operating expense money. [For the trail only,] we have Measure D, which would pay for the majority of it. And we could potentially bond Measure D funds to finance it. And there are many grants available for active transportation projects, which are actually realistic.

How important is it that the project gets approval in February? What’s at stake if the project gets delayed?

BC: I don’t think that this vote means anything. I know everyone’s acting like it’s really critical. There is no money. This vote is window dressing.

MM: What’s at stake is the viability of transportation in our community. We would essentially be ending the opportunity to improve mobility. And we would end the opportunity to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. We would significantly reduce the opportunities available to people that are currently suffering under limited opportunity for employment and education. It would hurt our industry, it would hurt our businesses, it would hurt our tourist industry.

Bud, for workers in South County who need a way to cheaply and more efficiently get up to their jobs in the northern part of the county, if not a rail commute, then what would you suggest?

BC: There are workers that have trucks, the trades workers that need their equipment. There are workers that need flexibility and timing that will not be consistent with fixed train schedules or traveling at nighttime. There are workers, especially low-income workers, that cannot afford the fares that are being proposed. …

So what instead? First of all, you have a wide multi-use trail that is optimized for e-bikes. And we’ve said, let’s look at other e-mobility.

The modernization of Metro, the use of bus on shoulders, the improvements to Soquel and Freedom will be a tremendous asset, along with active transportation on the corridor for people who want to get from here to there.

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Why do you think people in Santa Cruz County are so passionate about this project?

MM: I honestly just cannot figure out why anyone would be opposed to this. I can tell you why I feel passionately, why many people I know are passionate about this. Santa Cruz is, generally, very environmentally conscious and very socially conscious. ... We are all motivated and think hard about what’s best for everyone.

BC: In every community, those that are trying to pull up tracks and build a trail — which always ends up being extremely popular after the fact — are opposed by entrenched train interests that are a combination of folks that have (some) obsession with trains. And we are feeling that issue here, because people bought it … that you could do both a rail and a trail, even though it’s not true, on this pathway. And people are just getting tired of it and I think that you’re seeing the voters say, ‘Enough,’ by the elections that have occurred in 2018 and 2020.

Do you want to clarify any key misconceptions out there about the Rail Trail issue?

BC: Yes, [it’s a misconception] that you can have both a rail and a trail; the trail will not be the entire 32 miles of the corridor; it will not accommodate different types of uses between bikes, pedestrians and e-mobility.

MM: Probably the single biggest perception problem is that somehow a trail only would be a satisfactory transportation solution. And that somehow, the decision before us is to put in a trail or a rail, that there’s an either-or situation in front of us. It’s not that at all; that combination, the yes-and solution, provides more options to more people than either one of those alone.

The bottom line is that we need a robust public transportation system to help fight economic, environmental and social inequity, and the best way to do that is to add passenger rail to our network and reconfigure our buses and make it easy and comfortable and attractive for people to use.

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.