A segment of the old branch rail line in Santa Cruz County.
A segment of the old branch rail line in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Rail Trail decision day: Pivotal vote will either cement or derail passenger rail’s future on coastal line

If Regtional Transportation Commissioners accept a rail-and-trail model, the RTC staff will then create a passenger rail business plan to be presented in April. If not, RTC staff will have to go back to the drawing board

In the decades in which Santa Cruz County residents have debated what to do with the old Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, Thursday marks a moment that will either bring this transportation corridor one step closer to a clear vision, or derail it into an uncertain future.

The Regional Transportation Commission, a 12-member group county supervisors, other local elected officials and members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metro bus service, are set to vote on whether to accept a staff report that recommends electric rail as the “preferred local alternative” transit for the 32 miles of train track that traverse the county from Watsonville to Davenport.

The report in question is called the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis & Rail Network Integration Study (TCAA). It found that some form of electric rail, either a commuter train or light rail, is the best form of public transit for the corridor.

Satellite view of the rail corridor in Santa Cruz County.
A satellite view of the 32 mile coastal corridor.
(Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission )

Ginger Dykaar, the RTC’s senior transportation planner and an author of the staff report, said she is “hopeful that they are going to accept the report, and that would mean choose passenger rail.”

Yet advocates for and against passenger rail in Santa Cruz County remain deeply divided.

“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, a train in Santa Cruz County on the rail corridor is dead — it is not financially feasible in a county of 270K people,” Bud Colligan, a board member of Greenway, a trail-only advocacy group, said in an email. “The only question remaining: which trail will be built.”

Mark Mesiti-Miller, vice chair of Friends of the Rail & Trail, is optimistic ahead of Thursday’s vote. “This is about much more than just putting a train on the corridor,” Mesiti-Miller said. “This is about transforming . . . our public transportation system, so that people can move around our county without a car. And, you know, more equitably and more sustainably.”

He said he expects that the majority of RTC board members will accept the findings of the report. And though Thursday’s vote is part of a continued larger process, to Mesiti-Miller it’s still “a big deal.”

If RTC commissioners accept the staff recommendation, the RTC staff will then create a passenger rail business plan to be presented in April. The plan will “provide a cash flow model, which gives you a sense for how much money you would need on an annual basis to move the various different components of the project forward,” Dykaar said. “It would lay out what do we need to do first, what’s the steps to take, where [are we] going to get the money from, and a timeline for that.”

If the staff report is not accepted, RTC staff will have to go back to the drawing board. The next steps from there will depend on what the commissioners reasons were for rejecting it, and any feedback they provide during the meeting.

Colligan and the other Greenway supporters want to take the question of passenger rail to voters, but that won’t be decided in this meeting.

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What happens if passenger rail is approved?

In addition to allowing the RTC to move forward with their business plan, Dykaar said the commissioners’ vote in support of the staff report would send an important message to state lawmakers in Sacramento that Santa Cruz is committed to passenger rail.

The state of California is updating its rail plan, first created in 2018, in 2022. The plan lays out a vision for an expanded network of passenger rail in the state. Dykaar believes it is essential for Santa Cruz County to be included in that plan as moving forward with passenger rail. For that to occur, “the number one thing that has to happen is that the Commission needs to decide on passenger rail as a locally preferred alternative,” Dykaar said.

The Santa Cruz Branch line is currently included in the 2018 rail plan, and the line, especially the southernmost station in Watsonville, which is poised to become an important rail hub. The Pajaro station would connect to lines running to San Jose.

What about the trail?

Construction of the trail along the railroad line is proceeding while train plans are hashed out. The trail projects along the line that the RTC is currently working on are part of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (Coastal Rail Trail).

Segment seven of this trail, which runs along the railroad line from Natural Bridges Drive to the wharf in Santa Cruz, was recently completed. Other segments are in the planning stages, and a trail connecting the city of Watsonville to the Watsonville Slough Wetlands trail network is scheduled as the next segment to begin construction.

But trail-only supporters say the greenway — a wide multi-use trail without a passenger rail line — has significant advantages over the rail and trail vision that the RTC is planning for. Colligan claims the trail plan the RTC is working on “detours onto unsafe streets in multiple locations.”

Pedestrians walking on a paved path.
Bambi and and Stan Bovee walk on the new Rail Trail path on segment 7 in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whatever happens on Thursday, the debate will continue. But if the commissioners vote to accept the staff report and recommendation of electric passenger rail it will signal that the leadership of Santa Cruz County is committed to passenger rail.

“This is an important milestone,” Mesti-Miller said. “It’s important to the community. It’s important to the future. It’s important to the next generation. It’s important to the planet.”

Cooligan, unsurprisingly, views the proceedings in a different light: “There is no “moving forward” with passenger rail,” he said. “It’s a planning study and the vote Thursday will simply provide an indication of how much additional support Greenway has garnered since the 1st District election” in which Manu Koenig upended longtime Supervisor John Leopold.

Koenig took office last month and in his role as a supervisor now has one of the 12 seats on the RTC. Among his campaign pillars was that a rail-and-trail option is expensive and unnecessary, but he has said little publicly about the subject since taking office.

The Rail Trail debate dates back to 1990, when the RTC began trying to purchase the rail corridor. The purchase was eventually completed in 2012, and was largely paid for with $10.2 million from a state fund specifically designated for passenger rail. The right-of-way along the track ranges from 25 feet to more than 100 feet in width.

The train track itself was originally built in 1876. Various freight trains used to run along that track — coal was hauled up to a cement plant in Davenport cement plant, and cement was sent back to Watsonville. From there, the line connected to another that ran to San Jose and San Francisco.

Contributing: Isabella Cueto