scenes from the rail trail on the Westside of Santa Cruz
Scenes from the rail trail on the Westside of Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Remember Measure D? Santa Cruz train planning has now left the station

Lookout political columnist Mike Rotkin gives us an update and a timeline on the Regional Transportation Commission’s work to establish an electric rail line and trail between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. One year ago, the community was still recovering from the divisive ballot initiative Measure D that tried to replace the rail-trail option with a trail-only plan. Rotkin serves on the RTC board.

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It has taken a year, but the cantankerous and divisive debate over Measure D (rail-trail) is finally over and we are moving forward with plans for an electric rail line between Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

There are — naturally — still a few die-hards who are against the rail and who speak out in letters to the editor and at meetings of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). And there are others who lament progress, saying the rail is too slow.

But the good news is the entire RTC and its staff now support exploring how the rail service might actually work here. They are looking at how to carry out the master plan for a rail-trail next to the tracks, rather than in place of them.

I remind you that in June 2022, voters turned down the trail-only plan by a decisive 73% or more in every district.

RTC is doing more than just talking. It also has a timeline of how the master plan — which divides the trail into 20 sections and was approved years ago — would look.

Here’s what it says:

Segment 5, the North Coast (Wilder Ranch to Davenport), will be constructed in 2024.

Segment 7, the Westside of Santa Cruz, was divided into two phases — the first of which, from Natural Bridges to California Street, was completed and has been in heavy public use since 2020. Phase 2, from California Street to the Boardwalk, is currently under construction and will be completed this year.

scenes from the rail trail on the Westside of Santa Cruz
Construction on the rail trail near the intersection of California and Bay streets on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Segments 8 and 9, from the Boardwalk to 17th Avenue, will be under construction in 2025 (the award-winning path adjacent to the trestle over the San Lorenzo River was completed in 2019).

Segments 10 and 11, from 17th Avenue to State Park Drive, with the exception of the Capitola trestle, will have an environmental review completed this year. Design will be completed in 2025 and construction is slated for 2026.

Segment 12, from State Park Drive to Rio Del Mar Boulevard, is considered part of the Highway 1 widening project, with environmental review and design to be completed this year with construction expected in 2025.

Segment 18, Watsonville, is in two phases, with Phase 1 completed in the spring of 2021 and Phase 2 (environmental review and design) planned for completion this year.

Progress on passenger service

At its Aug. 3 meeting, the RTC voted unanimously to support the next step in planning for rail service though Santa Cruz County.

Some commissioners remain skeptical that a train is ultimately feasible; however, they joined the train supporters on the RTC in supporting a measure to study the alignment and other physical planning issues necessary for understanding the true costs of constructing a modern electric passenger train system in the county. Of course, they retain their right to balk at going forward later if the costs and benefits don’t meet expectations.

Some of the issues that need to be determined are:

  • Where would the passing sidings that would allow for two-way service on the single-track rail line go?
  • Where will the stations go and how would they articulate with the bus system to connect passengers with the starting points and ultimate destinations?
  • What will the exact alignment of the tracks look like (the current alignment is too sharp at a few points for even a slow-moving freight train, much less a rapid passenger train)?
  • Will this construction require the purchase of additional right of way?
  • What will be the location and cost of safe crossings through our county (which apparently can be designed to not require blowing an ear-splitting horn at each crossing)?

The study will also look at the question of what subsidies might be necessary to make the train ride affordable for working people trying to get from Watsonville to Santa Cruz.

When all of this work is completed, there will also have to be an environmental review of the design.

When completed June 30, 2028, the study will provide the RTC board of directors, with input from the public, the information they need to make a rational decision about whether or not to proceed with the plan for passenger service in our county.

Money and the trail

Without the support of Santa Cruz County voters, none of this work would have been possible.

These segments have benefited from funding from 2016’s Measure D as well as significant contributions from the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and from state and federal grants. In most cases, those grants were awarded based on excellent work by RTC staff emphasizing the multimodal nature of the project and strong local matching funds provided by Measure D.

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

Last spring, the RTC had already voted to support beginning the study using the $3.8 million in the 12% category of Measure D that supports the development of the rail project. RTC also signed a contract with a consultant for the study.

But recently, the RTC was awarded a $3.45 million California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) funding. In its Aug. 3 decision, the RTC added these funds to the early funding along with another $350,000 of Measure D trail category funding that will benefit from this study. This provides a total of $7,703,548 to complete the study.

The study will require $9.2 million — which still leaves a shortfall. The RTC voted unanimously to make up the difference by using Measure D funding — borrowing the $1.63 million from other Measure D categories if necessary (and to be paid back from future Measure D rail category tax receipts).

Unity of purpose

All said, we might or might not have a future of passenger rail service through our county. But having unanimous votes from the RTC in support of any project can only help with future fundraising.

Both the federal government and the state are much more likely to support projects that have the full support of the community. It also doesn’t hurt that the state and the federal transit administration are so supportive of trains in our future.

So it was a welcome August moment when only four members of the public spoke out — one in support and three opposed — about all of these actions.

Given where we were just a little over a year ago, we should take that as a big leap forward. We’ve moved on from an issue that divided us to working together to make an ambitious project happen.

Mike Rotkin has lived in Santa Cruz since 1969 and teaches at UCSC. He is a five-time former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. Read his previous columns for Lookout here.