Part of the coastal rail line in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

RTC greenlights studying ‘interim trail’ options along 2 rail corridor segments

The 12-member Regional Transportation Commission board voted on two items that effectively will allow officials to study the new alternative along at least two stretches of the corridor, evaluating a potential interim trail that would create a path for bikers and pedestrians while more permanent options continue to be weighed.

Transportation officials got the green light Thursday to study what an “interim trail” would look like along two segments of Santa Cruz County’s much-debated rail corridor. It’s the latest development in the complex Rail Trail discussion after the county’s Regional Transportation Commission pumped the brakes on plans for electric passenger rail earlier this year.

The 12-member board voted on two items that effectively will allow officials to study the new alternative along at least two stretches of the corridor, evaluating a potential interim trail that would create a path for bikers and pedestrians while more permanent options continue to be weighed.

First, commissioners unanimously approved a contract with a new consultant who will continue preparing an environmental analysis and preliminary engineering for a project that will widen parts of Highway 1 to make room for public transit buses to more quickly ferry passengers along the shoulder.

With the new contract, the consultant’s work will now include studying the interim trail option along Segment 12 of the Coastal Rail Trail, which spans State Park Drive to Rio Del Mar Boulevard in Aptos along the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

Secondly, commissioners voted 8-4 to amend another contract, allowing officials to analyze the Capitola Trestle bridge to see if it could withstand the weight of bicycles and pedestrians, either in its current condition or with minor retrofitting.

Commissioner Mike Rotkin and Chairman Aurelio Gonzalez, as well as commission alternates Lowell Hurst and Felipe Hernandez, voted against the move.

“I don’t want to spend a nickel on studying pedestrians and bicycles only over that bridge because there’s no way you can move the train around it,” said Rotkin, who represents the Santa Cruz Metro bus service on the board. “I don’t want to spend the public’s money to study an option that I know I’m not going to support.”

Others on the board who support a future rail option took a different approach. Commissioner Andy Schiffrin, the RTC designee for Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, said the vote was really about following the requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

“From my perspective, all that’s in front of us today is really a legal question,” he said. “It’s not a question of whether I would support … a trail only over the trestle or not. It’s a question of how do you get the ability to have a defensible CEQA document for whatever the commission approves.”

Thursday’s votes come in the wake of commissioners — in a tie April vote — failing to move forward with a business plan for electric passenger rail along the corridor, in part due to concerns over the project’s estimated costs. Plans further stalled a month later among discussions over a $17 million funding gap that must be filled for the train proposal to move forward.

Still, “an interim trail alternative would not preclude future passenger rail service” on the Santa Cruz Branch Line “in accordance with RTC’s long-range plans,” RTC staff wrote in documents for the commission, calling electric rail transit along the corridor a “longer-term investment.”

The topic has long proved polarizing. Opponents of a train along the corridor have said it would be too expensive and not feasible in a county this size. Proponents of a train-and-trail vision, meanwhile, argue such a project is needed for equitable and sustainable access to public transit in the county.