A knowledgeable ‘undecided’ on Measure D? Those folks are hard to find, but we tracked one down

Ron Goodman is trying to cut through the politics behind Measure D.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ron Goodman, a software engineer and bike advocate, shares his valuable rail/trail insights. The former director of Bike Santa Cruz County knows lots more than most voters about the many grays in what advocates paint as a black-or-white issue. What can we learn from his fair-minded assessment?

Upper Westside resident Ron Goodman is just the person this Measure D discussion needs: someone in the know who is still undecided.

As a bike guy, one would suspect Goodman must be for a nice, wide, safe bike path, separated from a walking path, in line with what Greenway hopes to achieve with a yes vote on Measure D.

But he’s also a transportation realist who is looking ahead toward the future of what Santa Cruz County will need to do to avoid complete and total gridlock — and do its part to fight the climate catastrophe ahead. That sounds a lot like the mindset of No Way Greenway and thus makes the equation a bit murkier.

Goodman is the rare mythical creature in this rail and trail debate that has fractured a community: a person who has been deeply involved in the process for years and yet still doesn’t know which way to vote on June 7. His ballot sits on his desk unopened as he continues to ponder what to do.

Much of his hesitance seems related to the tumultuous decadelong course that brings us to this moment. He wants others to know that this isn’t nearly as black-and-white as each side wants to paint it. Behind what has become a fairly nasty political spitball fight lies a far more nuanced picture hidden in shades of gray.

Ron Goodman, a software engineer and bike advocate
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Many of the discussions of Measure D focus on perceptions about the personalities involved rather than on what would be best for our community.

“It’s a complex topic as it connects with issues of housing, transportation and environment. Unfortunately, it also connects with issues of polarization,” Goodman told Lookout. “Many of the discussions of Measure D focus on perceptions about the personalities involved rather than on what would be best for our community.”

Goodman is a Caltech grad who came to Santa Cruz in 1989 to pursue a master’s in engineering with an ecology emphasis at UCSC, and decided to stick around and raise a family. In the 1990s, he was the executive director of one of the county’s primary bike advocacy groups called People Power, which eventually became Bike Santa Cruz County.

That group advocated for the 2012 purchase of the rail line corridor because it believed in a future that included bike facilities and public transportation to help address the climate impacts of car culture. Goodman has tried to establish himself as a neutral voice on the politicized topics of the rail trail. (Here’s an analysis he did on the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission’s proposed contract with Progressive Rail in 2018.)

And even though he started out advocating for a train on the corridor, like so many do on this topic, he didn’t let that prevent him from continuing to learn and process in the most nonpartisan way possible.

“I try to remember the goals — addressing climate change and providing equitable transportation — rather than fixating on a particular solution,” said the software engineer, scuba instructor and musician, who is cited by community leaders as someone to listen to on this topic.

But as the process moved along and new information surfaced, he has seen it as more and more complicated. As for what happens whether Measure D passes or fails, Goodman knows there will be too many unknown implications and what-ifs to even predict what will happen.

And a lot of his reservations involve the message sent either way. As he flips and flops back and forth on any given day, he knows one thing for sure: He likes the feeling of being free from the politics.

“I have not taken a position,” he said. “One side had my name on their website as a supporter, but I have no idea why and I asked them to remove it. Which they did.”

So how does a Measure D unicorn who still doesn’t know how he’s going to vote, whose study of the issue through the lenses of his professional training and avocation, pick apart some of the major issues with the Measure D?

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: What actually happens if Measure D passes or fails?

Ron Goodman: Measure D does some technical things, including changing the general plan. But it isn’t binding to the agency that controls the corridor (the SCCRTC). As such, its biggest impact is the message it sends. Measures are blunt communication tools lacking any real nuance. But basically, I think the messages voters are trying to send are:

Yes on D: (1) I want a better trail and (2) either I don’t think train service will ever happen AND/OR I don’t think rail service there is valuable enough.

No on D: (1) I am OK with a lower-quality trail because I believe I’ll get that trail sooner AND/OR I think a train is possible and I value that over a better trail.

Ron Goodman, a software engineer and bike advocate
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: So it sounds like you are somewhere between what either a yes or no vote accomplishes.

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Goodman: The message I would prefer to send is, “My priority is addressing climate change. We need transit that bypasses Highway 1 traffic (could be bus or train) that can go directly to major destinations (bus only). As such, I believe a dedicated bus lane on Highway 1 (or bus rapid transit on the corridor) is a better transit option. I think the train is unlikely to be built. Furthermore, I want a good trail, and according to city/county public works, the trail would be significantly worse and more expensive with the tracks.”

This is the message I want to send, but unfortunately, neither yes nor no really sends it. But the election is happening, voting no or yes still sends a message, and the Yes on D message seems maybe a little closer to the one I wish to send. But I’m not thrilled with my options of “yes” or “no.”

Lookout: But that makes it sound like you’re anti-rail when maybe it’s more like you’re uncertain about the best forms of future public transportation.

Goodman: I lean toward a no vote some days. The reason I sometimes lean towards no is that a yes vote on Measure D can be interpreted as sending a message indicating a lack of support for public transportation. I think public transportation is really critical to addressing a number of local problems. I really don’t want that to be the takeaway message if Measure D wins.

My ballot is still sitting on my desk because I’m weighing wanting to send a message of general support for public transportation versus sending a message that the train project is a risky suboptimal public transportation project that diminishes the bike trail.

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

Lookout: If we drop the existential “future of transportation” talk for a moment and focus just on which plan gets a trail built faster, as both claim, whose version are you buying?

Goodman: There is genuinely no way to know. It’s true that a lot of work has already been done to accomplish the trail+rail option. But that option costs quite a bit more and it takes time to accumulate money, too. For example, the reason we have the existing Westside section ending at Bay Street is that the original plan to build the trail all the way down to the wharf was too expensive and so it had to be separated into two phases, thus creating a long delay for that section.

The second half (Neary Lagoon Segment 7b) was originally estimated at $4 million, which is already quite expensive, but two meetings ago at the city Transportation and Public Works Commission meeting we were told it is now estimated at $12 million. This section is unique in that Roaring Camp uses it to turn trains around, and so removing the tracks is not an option regardless of what is done elsewhere on the corridor. All this said, switching to trail only does mean restarting some processes, and starting some new ones like railbanking that could take a while. I think each side says their way will be faster without really knowing.

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Lookout: Obviously to you it’s bigger than how fast we can get something done anyway, right?

Goodman: Yeah, I would argue that the issue is not the fastest way to get a path built, though. We should be thinking about what we want the path to do for our community and then evaluating which path accomplishes that. Sure, it would be nice to have something sooner. But if we can do it for millions less and end up with a path that is safer and more attractive to new cyclists, and maybe also have a better public transit option, that is important, even if it did take longer, which again isn’t a known.

Lookout: There’s an obvious trade-off in getting what no one can argue would be a superior path.

Goodman: There is no doubt that keeping the tracks means we will have a lower-quality trail. The question is, is the future promise of a potential train worth the trade-off. I think the answer to that question requires understanding the probability that we would ever have a train. If the probability is near zero, then it’s hard to justify the impacts to the trail. On the other hand, if we might really get a valuable transit option on the corridor one day, that might very well be worth it.

a section of rail trail near La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: The available width differential, especially in tight parts of the corridor, varies greatly with and without rail.

Goodman: Removing the tracks adds so much usable space. It’s not just the fact that the tracks bisect the corridor, or that the tracks use up space themselves, but they also effectively make unusable about 7.5 feet of land on either side of the tracks. If the RTC had been open to bus rapid transit (BRT) on the corridor, most of the corridor would probably have room for a BRT lane in addition to a 12-to-16-foot trail.

Lookout: How do you view the issue of whether we as a community could fund a train?

Goodman: I think Measure D will help us answer this question. If our community overwhelmingly votes for or against the measure, it will give us an indication of whether we are likely to vote for or against a likely necessary (according to the RTC) tax to fund rail service. However, beyond this I am not an expert on rail funding. It seems unlikely to me that we would score well based on our size and density, but I know better than to think I have real insight on this topic.

Lookout: What’s your view on railbanking and whether that would actually kill any chance of future rail?

Goodman: I think it’s fair to say that if we railbank our corridor, it is extremely unlikely we will ever restore it to rail service. But it would be an option. The value in railbanking is less that we can one day use it for a train, but rather that it gives us the ability to avoid many legal problems that might get in the way of using the corridor exclusively for non-train purposes. I think the opposition to Measure D has claimed that it’s deceptive to talk about railbanking because converting it back is rare.

But I don’t think the Yes on Measure D campaign is arguing that we are likely to ever restore train service. I think they would agree that the odds of this are minuscule. Their position is just that we do have the legal right to do so in the unlikely event that our community one day determines that makes sense.

a section of rail trail near La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How do you view the current plans underway, voted on and funded by the previous Measure D in 2016, for highway improvements?

Goodman: The RTC is proposing auxiliary lanes on Highway 1. They describe them as bus lanes, but the buses share the lanes with cars for most of the way so they are stuck in the same traffic. Aux lanes create more car capacity, and most local environmental organizations oppose this. If instead those lanes became dedicated bus-only lanes, we would have less car capacity than what the RTC is proposing, rather than more.

And we would have a much cheaper public transit option that is not stuck on one corridor since it would be able to leave Highway 1 to solve the first/last-mile problem. And every Highway 1 driver stuck in traffic would see those buses zipping by and be motivated to try transit.

Lookout: It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about the real issues rather than the rhetoric.

Goodman: I have tried to focus my discussions on the issues. I’m far more concerned about climate change than the motivations of the people behind the campaigns.

Lookout: Ron, do you know anyone else who is as informed as you on this that is still undecided?

Goodman: I’d like to think someone exists … but I haven’t met them yet.