The ‘No’s had it on Measure D. Now the big question for RTC: What can it say yes to, and when?

The rail line on the trestle above Capitola Village.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thursday’s first meeting of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission board after the drubbing of Measure D showed signs of reconciliation while the public commenters illustrated much of the same politically charged rhetoric. The rail and trail question remains: Where do we go from here?

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No magic wands were waved nor crystal balls brought forth at Thursday morning’s post-Measure D virtual transportation gathering.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission took no action, as planned, and the wide array of public comment sounded very much like the same partisan messages delivered by the same unwavering voices — only this time with victory speeches and non-concession speeches.

“I am here today because the people have spoken,” began the first person invited to speak by commissioner Manu Koenig, No On D leader Mark Mesiti-Miller.

Mesiti-Miller’s two-minute speech began a predictable back and forth between those who believe a 72% “No” vote, with votes still to be counted, sets a clear path toward rail exploration and those who still insist the feasibility of a passenger rail future in Santa Cruz County is fool’s gold.

“Their job,” public commenter Ryan Sarnataro said of the RTC staff, “is to speak truth to ignorance.”

It was a follow-up to Sarnataro’s earlier words, which included: “I understand politically some of you are trapped between the unrealistic expectations of voters fed years of disinformation and physical and fiscal reality. (But) sometimes responsibility requires courage.”

Within the harsh rhetoric appeared hints of conciliatory sentiments — particularly from several of the commissioners themselves.

Koenig, the face most associated with the failed Greenway initiative since he served as Greenway’s executive director before entering the political arena and ascending to county supervisors chair and RTC vice-chair, was most pointed.

County Supervisor Manu Koenig during Thursday's RTC meeting.

“My hope is that with this measure done, we can leave the negativity behind us and that we can take a more collaborative approach,” he said. “As we encounter problems that we can help each other over them rather than fight each other for them. And that we can take a scientific view and look for ways to prove ourselves wrong rather than selectively seeing things that prove us right. That’s the attitude that I’m going to bring to the table, and I hope my colleagues will, too.”

Commissioner Andy Schiffrin, who has been on the other end of 6-6 votes on the RTC board from Koenig, took a moment to thank Koenig for his sentiments.

“I think it’s really important that we move forward in a positive way here,” he said. “There was a very strong message from the public. But, in the end, I think people share a very similar goal of wanting a trail that really serves the public. And I think people want transit that really serves the public.”

“It’s true,” Schiffrin continued, “we don’t know how to get there from here, and it’s going to be difficult. But I think if we work together and try to look for solutions that extend the trail and move forward in identifying funding for the potential feasibility of public transit on the corridor, I’m hoping that we will get past the negativity.”

As an illustration of how broad the conversation stayed, there was hardly a mention of railbanking or forced abandonment of the corridor — even from Roaring Camp Railroads director Melani Clark, who was among the early commenters.

Much of what the commission did talk about, while approving the final environmental impact report for the county’s 2045 regional transportation plan (RTP), focused on the larger picture of how the future of development and transit — both on Highway 1 and potentially along the rail corridor — must be inextricably linked.

Commissioner Bruce McPherson simplified the goal ahead for the RTC: “transit-oriented development.”

That’s a long game to be played out in conjunction with the cities along the corridor — Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville — and the county-governed areas, including Live Oak, Aptos and the North Coast.

“It has to be done in conjunction with others and some of those agencies might begin to think about the real potential for beginning to actually move on their housing projects,” said commissioner Mike Rotkin, who has begun to think about specific ways forward for the RTC.

Former Santa Cruz mayor and RTC commissioner Mike Rotkin during Thursday's meeting.

Rotkin also took a moment to thank Greenway leader Bud Colligan for his team’s quick concession the morning after the election and what he believed was a measured response compared to many of the Greenway supporters weighing in during public comment.

“A lot of Greenway supporters have not got the message yet, and we’ve been hearing from some of them this morning,” he said. “People want to suggest the vote meant this or people didn’t know what they were doing, blah, blah, blah. I’m afraid that’s not an adequate response.

“And I thought Mr. Colligan’s response was much more admirable in terms of that there’s something people have said, and we do have an answer. It’s not a complete answer, but a much better answer than we did before about what people want us to do.”

Koenig was one of the Measure D supporters who didn’t sound completely sold on the notion of a grand “the people have spoken” proclamation in the immediate hours after the election.

But he took a moment Thursday morning to issue a statement of where he stands now, saying that politics need to be replaced by clear-eyed thinking, that all possibilities need to be on the table and explored to their very fullest.

“It’s clear Measure D lost by a large margin, and that voters did not want to change the county general plan,” he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that the rejection of Greenway’s measure does not mean that our jobs are solved.

“We’ve worked with the extreme negativity that has run this issue. I don’t think that we are in a position to say yes to any solution at the moment.”

The RTC’s next full meeting will be Aug. 4, and a hybrid in-person/virtual setup is being considered.

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