A train runs through us: Why the polarizing rail trail issue has divided us in a time that demands unity

Train tracks near La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What’s wrong with the rail trail debate is what’s wrong with American democracy in 2022, Wallace Baine writes. Why isn’t “Maybe,” or “It’s Complicated,” or “This Is Not My Field,” or “Whatever, Dude” one of the answers to a profound question of how we live our lives, recreate and commute in Santa Cruz County?

I have a favorite piece of the rail trail — or whatever you choose to call the 32-mile-long railroad line that is the subject of Measure D and much community discord these days.

Wallace

It’s a stretch that runs southeast from Seascape Beach Resort, across a dramatic oceanside trestle and below the cliff face of La Selva Beach, all the way to Manresa. No street or roadway parallels this particular piece of the rail line. For a moment, anyway, it takes you entirely away from the world of cars, and it feels vaguely illicit to follow it beyond the end of the road, as if you’re descending into somewhere dangerous, or at least adventurous. It bisects the lettuce fields into a thick stand of eucalyptus and eventually emerges out of the dark woods onto a vista spot overlooking the silver-sparkled ocean and the vast unpeopled beach below. It’s a sight that would blow minds and drop jaws from Modesto to Maine, but in Santa Cruz County, it’s just another spot, another sunset.

I make sure to walk this part of the rail line fairly often, and it’s always a surprise when I see another person on it. Last week, on a breezy sunny afternoon, with the mighty eucalyptus trunks creaking in the wind, the number of other humans and coyotes I encountered on the trail was the same (one each).

If nobody’s walking the rail trail these days, at least everybody’s talking about it. There is a jarring contrast between the quiet of the rusty and weedy abandoned rail line and the furor around the debate about the Greenway-backed Measure D to decide the fate of that path.

I am agnostic about Measure D — there’s a club of us undecideds; it seems somedays like you could fit us all in the tiny Surfing Museum on West Cliff Drive, and there’d still be room for dancing. But I take it on faith that most people in the community are sick of the viciousness of the campaign and want it to just go away.

I’m wary of being drawn into an increasingly ugly battle of weaponized narratives, or some kind of melodramatic opera of accumulated grievances and suspicions. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were called on merely to decide whether an old rail line should be converted to a commuter train or to a biking/hiking trail? In a world other than the U.S.A. in the 2020s, that, and only that, would be the question.

But right here right now, a fairly low-stakes referendum has turned into a faceoff of values. We voters are asked to stand with one tribe or another and publicly stake a claim on our personal integrity when it comes to class, race, privilege, equality and justice. A railroad usually divides a community only in the physical sense, as lines on a map. Here it’s doing so in more profound ways.

A big part of our shared conundrum is with the referendum process itself: Simple yes/no votes are often not compatible with thorny, complex issues, and many of us just aren’t equipped to make deeply informed decisions in fields outside our range of experience. If you’re like me, you might be thinking: “I’m a dentist/nurse/barista/unemployed novelist. Why do I have to make a decision about ‘railbanking,’ whatever that is?”

Railroad tracks between Aptos and La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Jeffersonian ideal of one-person-one-vote is beautiful in its ideal form. But in the real world, it means the Measure D vote of a railroad engineer is exactly equal to the vote of a barking-mad Reddit troll who believes Nancy Pelosi masterminded 9/11. If we want ideal outcomes, my vote should count about, maybe, 40% of that railroad engineer’s vote. But who the hell is going to decide what that number is? It’s the madness inherent in democracy, and we all have to live or die with its consequences.

So, it’s not a surprise that these issues are amplified into a clash of civilizations and the narratives tilt toward Marvel movie plot lines. There is no ballot option for Maybe, or It’s Complicated, or This is Not My Field, or Whatever, Dude. It’s only Yes or No. Like buying a car, a 60/40 decision quickly becomes a 100% committed position after the fact. Doubt and ambivalence are for losers. It’s time to pick up the sword and the shield.

In that environment, Measure D is not just about the rail trail. More than anything else, it reflects a growing — you might say, consuming — anxiety about the future.

What’s it really about?

It’s about traffic. In talking to people for the past few months, I’m struck by how closely people’s positions on this issue track with their desperate fear and hatred of the traffic situation, mostly on Highway 1, and how much worse it might get. No one knows how much a commuter train will relieve congestion on the freeway in whatever distant year it becomes operable. We have only guesses. But those of us who feel our lives evaporating away staring at the 41st Avenue exit sign are ready to take any painkiller the doctor offers.

A section of the rail line near La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s about downtown. Many locals are greatly dismayed about downtown Santa Cruz, whether they spend much time there or not. Whether they’re upset at the (perceived) shabby deterioration of downtown, or the rapid redevelopment and building going on (and the big changes in store for the area), many people feel they’re losing control of the direction and shape of the community. And D offers them at least one opportunity to reexert that control in some small way.

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It’s about privilege. We’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from the prism of our social/economic position in our community, which often turns to resentment aimed at everyone above you on that scale and guilt at everyone below. Privilege is a real thing, obviously. But privilege consciousness, which makes often lazy assumptions about the motives of others, is a demanding, even tyrannical orientation toward the world. It will insist on no other point of view.

It’s about the environment. How does the choice of biking over driving go from doing your part for sound environmental stewardship to exposing your clueless elitism? Welcome to the funhouse mirror of modern-day political gamesmanship.

It’s about money. In the grand arm-wrestling match between democracy and capitalism, those without a lot of capital are sensing more now than ever that they’re losing, that voters matter less than dollars. With that mindset, you’re going to push against Big Money every time. And the other side is always the side of Big Money.

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It’s about “bigfooting.” Community change works through channels, procedures, contracts, projects, politically constructed entities, long-standing relationships. It’s a process. When people get impatient with that process, they tend to take action in ways that other people view as cutting in line. Those on both sides feel like suckers. Nobody wants to feel like a sucker.

It’s about housing. There is a palpable and perfectly understandable fear, particularly in coastal California, among middle- and lower-income people. And it’s the fear of being priced out of their communities, whether it’s for the sake of themselves or their children. The absurd housing market in Santa Cruz and the greater Bay Area has already made refugees of thousands (soon to be millions?) of people who can’t afford to live in a community that, in many cases, has been the center of their lives. As that trend continues seemingly without even slowing down, it’s all too easy for anxious locals to see initiatives such as Measure D as another chess move against them, even if there’s no master chess player behind it.

A section of the rail line near La Selva Beach
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s about the future, but not in the calculated and cynically optimistic language of the political messaging professionals. Many of us, of all backgrounds and ages, feel that we’re all in a log ride headed toward an inevitably bleak era of climate turmoil, economic catastrophe and/or political crisis. The news and entertainment media and political opportunists, both cynical and earnest, have been turning that particular dial up to 11 for many years now. Within this relentlessly boiling stew of anxiety, even a vote for dogcatcher is going to be freighted with apocalyptic emotions about what’s happening to our world. So many people feel that they’re free-falling. And every day, it seems, we have to wake up to ask ourselves: Is there a parachute, or not? And will it work?

Whatever the outcome of this particular vote, there will remain in this community two masses of otherwise progressive and decent-hearted voters on opposite sides of an issue that has strained, maybe even destroyed relationships. The nation, even the world, is likely about to encounter some political struggles with significantly higher stakes than the fate of an old rail line. Whether it’s the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the restriction of voting rights, the integrity of elections, or the rise of a truly menacing force that will accelerate a dark and violent chapter in American history, we’re all going to have to find allies among those we’re now standing against. We’re all soon going to need the bridges we’re so quickly burning now.

Maybe it’s best to wait until after June 8, but I suggest doing the work to wrestle free of whatever narrative about D that you now embrace with utter certainty. Whether it’s an educated guess, or a decidedly uneducated guess, we’re all still guessing. Find a friend or former friend from the other side of this issue. Make a date. Take a walk together.

I know just the spot.

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