The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs alongside a recently completed section of a trail in Santa Cruz.
The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs alongside a recently completed section of a trail in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Greenway submits signatures for proposed initiative on use of rail line

The proposal, which still must have its signatures verified before qualifying for the June 2022 ballot, would potentially force county leaders to use the Santa Cruz Branch Line for a parklike bicycle and pedestrian path. This is in opposition to those who want a commuter rail line and trail combo.

Supporters of a proposed initiative that would, if passed, could potentially require the county to build a parklike trail from Santa Cruz to Watsonville on the railroad tracks between the cities formally presented a petition with more than 16,000 signatures to the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office Tuesday morning.

The so-called Greenway Plan is in direct opposition to those who want a trail alongside a commuter train on the Santa Cruz Branch Line. The proposal — which still needs to have its signatures verified — would effectively force county leaders’ hands regarding the longstanding controversy and, supporters hope, end it once and for all.

Regarding next steps, County Clerk Tricia Webber said her office has until Jan. 31 — 30 business days, excluding county holidays — to verify the signatures as a next step of the process.

“[The signature count] may be the same as what they say, or it may be slightly different — usually we see a slight variation,” she said, noting that she doesn’t believe it will be a problem to garner the minimum number required, 11,919 signatures.

If there are enough valid signatures, Webber will then provide her certificate of sufficiency to the Board of Supervisors, who will have three options for next steps.

They can either pass an ordinance adopting the initiative, approve it for the ballot or choose to have further studies on the initiative before voting. Should they choose to put the initiative on the June ballot, the Board would have to inform Webber by no later than March 11, 2022.


FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the initiative would appear on the June ballot if the signatures were verified. In fact, the Board of Supervisors would still need to consider and vote on the matter.

Gayle Ortiz, a Greenway volunteer based in Capitola, said the plan would be a “more innovative approach to transportation.”

“That’s what we need — we’re not a huge metropolitan area, we’re spread out, and transportation has to be thought of in different ways,” she said, citing the bike paths and other commuter-friendly amenities that would be part of the plan.

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In conducting a survey called Vision Capitola a few years ago, Ortiz said she received over 3,000 responses regarding what people in that community wanted for the future. Many, she said, did not want the rail line.

“No matter how much you want a train, it’s just a fantasy here in Santa Cruz County — that’s not the direction we should be going in right now,” she said.

But Faina Segal, board chair for Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT), cited a March 2021 poll that found 74% of active county voters support the electric passenger rail service. The group claims the rail would alleviate the traffic congestion along Highway 1, and could particularly benefit those who live in Watsonville but work in the northern part of Santa Cruz County.

“This is really the entire community — including every single Democratic group in the county — as supporting both rail and trail,” she said. “The community, over 20 years, has developed the trail, and Greenway is trying to change that.”

Buzz Anderson — a Greenway leader based in Live Oak — said many Watsonville community members he spoke with were supportive of the Greenway plan.

“I think we’re going to take that momentum into the campaign and into the election,” he said.

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Earlier this year, two political committees were formed to support or oppose the measure. As of Sept. 30 — the most recent date available — the “YES Greenway” committee had raised about $56,000, while “No Way Greenway Sponsorship by Friends of Rail and Trail” reported about $2,600 — all in non-monetary contributions from FORT itself.

According to the California Fair Political Practice Commission, the next reporting deadline for contributions is not until January 2022, and the current totals do not reflect any contributions made since Oct. 1.

Matt Farrell, who is listed as the treasurer of “No Way Greenway,” said Tuesday evening that the group has raised $29,073 “plus over $80,000 in committed pledges.” Calls on Tuesday evening to James Sutton, the listed treasurer for “Yes Greenway,” as well as to Greenway leaders seeking updated figures were not immediately returned.

Somewhat unclear is the relative community support each side of the issue has. Bud Colligan, a leader in the Greenway group, said 170 unpaid volunteers gathered signatures. Though there is not a formal membership list, he pointed to the more than 7,000 supporters and followers it has on social media.

Segal, for her part, said FORT has 900 active members. Its Facebook page has more than 4,700 followers.

Within the next 30 business days, the county clerk will certify signatures for the Greenway petition. Should those signatures be confirmed, the item will qualify for the June 7, 2022, ballot.