A cheat sheet for your Measure D migraine: We asked both sides to cut the rhetoric and explain the issues

a rail line extends into the distance as the sun sets

Leaders of both Yes Greenway and No Way Greenway provided detailed answers to a range of questions. We asked for their best succinct closing arguments on time to build, cost, equity and environmental impact, among other core issues in the rail-trail debate. With voting set to close in Santa Cruz County on Tuesday, here is a side-by-side look at those arguments.

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Where is one to find the straight talk on Measure D?

Both sides of the campaign, Yes Greenway and No Way Greenway, like to say, “Just go to our websites.” Ask the public information representatives in the Santa Cruz County government itself, or the Regional Transportation Commission for help navigating the maze of claims, and they’ll point voters toward myriad maps and studies and meeting minutes that are all, frankly, not so easy to access, comb through or even locate on their respective web properties.

Earlier Thursday, Lookout waded through the RTC’s deep work on the corridor in an interview with RTC head Guy Preston — and there are many clues about the real issues to be found there.

Now, in lieu of a last-minute, face-to-face debate, where we could sit down with Greenway chief Bud Colligan and No Way Greenway leaders Mark Mesiti-Miller and Melani Clark in person, we’ve constructed the next-best thing: a virtual one.

We asked the two groups, as voters make their final decisions ahead of Tuesday’s election day, to cut the rhetoric and get to the facts. Each side had only so many words to get their most salient arguments across on the key issues, from equity to environmentalism to expediency to railbanking to the future of county transportation.

We wanted to get more directly at what Measure D actually does and does not do — rather than who is and isn’t the dirtier dog in this political brawl. Well, we couldn’t help but ask that one at the end just for fun anyway — but not before each side delivered a solid helping of side-by-side substance.

We hope this cheat sheet, and perhaps some ibuprofen, will be just what the doctor ordered for your Measure D migraine. Answers from each side have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Santa Cruz philanthropist Bud Colligan
Greenway leader Bud Colligan.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Yes Greenway says, “Build the trail now,” but isn’t a trail already being built?

Yes Greenway: Both versions of the trail are currently being studied and cleared with the same environmental document. The relative simplicity of the Greenway trail will allow us to start building sooner because it can use the existing trestles in Capitola, La Selva and Aptos. In contrast, the RTC warned at its May 5 meeting that the No on D plan faces huge engineering and cost challenges that could delay construction and prevent completion of the trail.

The No on D “trail” south of the San Lorenzo Bridge is not a trail at all. It would detour into Capitola Village because it can’t use the out-of-service Capitola Trestle. It detours off the rail corridor for 5 miles onto San Andreas Road and West Beach Street, so Watsonville families get no trail in the No on D plan.

No Way Greenway: Yes, alongside the existing rail tracks, and following an award-winning master plan that was approved in 2014. Three sections of the trail have already been completed in Santa Cruz and Watsonville and have become very popular for residents and visitors alike. Another trail section will break ground this summer and more sections are coming fast. The RTC indicates 18.9 miles of the 32-mile trail could be completed or under construction by 2025, but only if Measure D is defeated. If Measure D passes, progress will come to a stop and the RTC will have to switch to a trail-only plan that will require tearing up the existing tracks. Trail-only will delay all action for years, due to the cumbersome federal process to explore the unproven and lawsuit-attracting concept of railbanking and the time required to revise the previously approved master plan.

No Way Greenway leaders Mark Mesiti-Miller and Melani Clark.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How would your plan get a trail built quicker for people?

No: If Measure D is defeated, the already approved and underway plan for a trail alongside the existing rail line will move forward. Three sections are complete, another breaks ground this summer and more are on the way. This stands in stark contrast to Greenway’s trail-only plan. If Measure D passes, all progress stops and the planning process starts over — including environmental studies and public input, not to mention the very difficult railbanking process.

We will go from segments ready to proceed to absolutely nothing ready to proceed, and the very concept of a trail will be put at great risk of ever happening. The county’s impartial analysis of Measure D clearly states, “… the Greenway Initiative does not guarantee that the Greenway will be constructed … the Greenway depends on the approval of railbanking. ... If the [Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line] Corridor is not able to be railbanked, the Greenway as proposed would not be feasible.”

Yes: Both Greenway and rail-with-trail are being studied concurrently now so neither has an advantage in studies or plans. According to the RTC, Greenway has one timing risk and that is railbanking, which Roaring Camp is currently fighting with the RTC. We believe a yes vote will convince Roaring Camp that it should negotiate in good faith with the RTC for the good of the community. The No on D plan has many risks according to the RTC: funding, engineering challenges, environmental impacts, and right-of-way property acquisitions.

Greenway is dramatically simpler since it is built down the center of the corridor without needing additional infrastructure. Evidence of its simplicity is that RTC estimates show Greenway to be about half the cost. The RTC believes Greenway can be paid for with existing funds. Additional funds will need to be sourced for No on D’s rail-with-trail.

A section of Santa Cruz County rail line
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The future of county transportation

Lookout: Neither campaign has talked much about widening Highway 1. If the rail corridor doesn’t become a traffic solution, is widening the only real choice?

No: If Greenway’s Measure D passes, we will be stuck with widening Highway 1 as our only option to address our current and future transportation needs. This is because Measure D will transform the rail corridor from its currently planned use as a transit corridor to instead be for recreational use as a linear park. There are several major problems with Highway 1 widening as the only option. The cost of widening Highway 1 is more than double the cost of adding passenger rail. Funding for highway widening is quickly becoming harder to find, compared to rail, because state and federal agencies are shifting to prioritize rail over highway widening. Widening the highway increases dependence on cars, increases vehicle miles traveled, increases GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and increases vehicle collisions. Importantly, the RTC has already rejected using the rail corridor for a trail-only greenway.

Yes: A train that we can’t afford to build is not a traffic solution. A train that we build and no one rides is not a traffic solution. Over 100,000 vehicles use Highway 1 every day, many heading over Highway 17. Investing to bring our highway up to 21st-century standards makes sense, especially as more electric and self-driving vehicles come online.

The RTC has moved beyond simple widening in its approach to highway projects. Every project also includes bike and pedestrian overcrossings and transit improvements. The auxiliary/bus-on-shoulder lanes project includes a grant application for four electric buses. Increased express buses and all-electric transit is possible with METRO on an improved highway.

Attempting to build yet another public transit system when the existing one has been cutting service will only divert money away from METRO and ParaCruz, which will not improve public transit.

Coast Futura streetcar going through Santa Cruz County
The Coast Futura streetcar that went through Santa Cruz County last summer as part of the No Way Greenway’s plan to show voters what is possible.
(Via Coast Futura)

Lookout: What makes No Way Greenway believe that train transportation is the way of the future, and why is Greenway convinced it’s not?

Yes: Greenway believes train transportation is great when and where appropriate. The past 38 years of train studies show it is not feasible in Santa Cruz County because we don’t have the population, ridership or funding to make it work.

There are ample examples close to us to inform the public about the folly of adding light rail to Santa Cruz County. Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose calls the VTA [Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority] a “colossal mistake.” The voters of Sonoma/Marin [counties] recently refused to extend the sales tax funding for the SMART train, because ridership is 20% of original forecasts, and most of the riders are high-income residents. The WES train in the Portland suburbs is also a complete failure. These examples have populations three to seven times larger than Santa Cruz County. We can either learn from their mistakes and invest in public transit that works, or repeat their mistakes.

No: Multiple studies have clearly concluded that passenger rail combined with our bus system will increase public transit use, increase walking and bicycling, and reduce travel by car, making our streets safer and our air cleaner. Electric rail has the benefit of moving passengers quietly through our community while avoiding vehicle traffic, while being more reliable, more comfortable and safer than anything that moves on our roadways. The RTC’s Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis predicted that adding rail transit will increase countywide public transit ridership by over 20,000 rides per day, while cutting commute times in half. Last, despite Greenway’s attempts to say otherwise, available funding for rail is growing and is outpacing funding for highway widening. Caltrans has developed a state rail plan, which includes passenger rail in Santa Cruz County. Caltrans has also indicated that its funding priority in the future will be rail, not highways.

The practical implications of a vote

Lookout: If one side wins narrowly, meaning the county remains very divided on the future of the rail corridor, can a definitive approach be pushed forward?

Yes: The size of the win for either side is immaterial. Either the General Plan is changed or it isn’t. Despite misinformation from the No on D campaign, the RTC makes its own decisions irrespective of the county’s General Plan. Given that there is no money for a train and the cost of the No on D trail is significantly more than Greenway, the commissioners will have to make decisions based on available resources.

The RTC will also have to examine continued spending of money in North County for cost overruns and heavy infrastructure versus investing in South County. The residents of South County will likely be frustrated by the continued trail building in the north when they get no trail at all with the No on D plan.

No: If Measure D fails, the already approved rail-trail plan will continue forward. More sections will be built soon and the entire 32-mile trail could be finished in about eight years. Caltrans will help plan the integration of our rail line into the state rail network. Given Greenway’s multiyear investment in promoting its trail-only vision, and given its significant funding advantage in the Measure D campaign, a defeat, whether small or large, will represent a clear rejection of the trail-only concept.

If Measure D passes, progress stops. The current plan will have to be dramatically revised, the rail line will have to be abandoned and railbanked, and the inevitable lawsuits about land easements will have to be resolved. Meanwhile, advocates insisting on action to address GHG emissions, equity for commuters and safety for cyclists and pedestrians will undoubtedly continue to push for rail alongside a trail.

Lookout: How does the job of the RTC change based on this vote?

No: If Measure D passes, the County of Santa Cruz’s General Plan will be amended and the RTC will be hogtied to a trail-only use of the rail corridor. This is because the RTC’s biggest partner, the county, will be prevented from planning or supporting any use of the rail corridor other than Greenway’s trail-only use. This means there can be no planning for trains or buses or any other public transit use of any kind along the corridor.

If Measure D is defeated, the RTC will be empowered to move forward with planning for all possible uses of the corridor, including rail transit with a trail located alongside.

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Yes: A yes vote on Measure D is a signal to the commissioners to move forward with railbanking and build Greenway. A no vote changes nothing for the RTC, since it simply does not amend the county’s General Plan.

The RTC has been clear on a number of issues: 1. In 2021, the commission voted NOT to adopt the passenger rail business plan because it was financially infeasible. 2. RTC staff has recommended railbanking the Santa Cruz Branch Line regardless of which trail approach is implemented, to protect local taxpayers and keep the corridor intact. 3. RTC staff has reported cost estimates for the No on D trail to be at least $100 million more than Greenway.

The RTC will have to make decisions based on the county’s resources and the latest information. We’re confident that Greenway will prevail over time because of the fiscal realities faced by the RTC.

The Roaring Camp beach train heads through downtown Santa Cruz
The Roaring Camp beach train heads through downtown Santa Cruz.

Roaring Camp and railbanking

Lookout: Assuming it was allowed, what would railbanking really do?

No: The federal government would determine if railbanking is allowed. Many analysts have agreed there is little chance of that happening, due to the adverse impacts railbanking would have on Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Rail Line. If allowed, railbanking would enable the RTC to remove the existing rail tracks and construct a trail in their place. But that will be a very long wait because railbanking would also trigger years of litigation to resolve easement-related claims from property owners along the rail line. Another result of railbanking would be to provide a near-guarantee that we will never have rail again. This is because, in the nearly 40 years since railbanking was invented, more than 23,000 miles of tracks have been removed and trails built in their place. Yet, not a single mile has returned to rail service after being paved for a trail as Greenway proposes.

Yes: Railbanking would allow a trail — either Greenway or rail-with-trail — to be built on existing easements on the rail right-of-way without the RTC being on the hook for any lawsuits. The SMART agency in Sonoma/Marin is finding out how essential railbanking is; it is being sued by 50 property owners for easement violations after building a trail next to the tracks because it did not railbank the corridor.

Railbanking also eliminates the requirements to maintain the rail line to freight standards, opening up opportunities to move people. It makes it possible to remove or cover the rails and build a trail. If we pursue passenger rail, it eliminates the need to schedule passenger trains around freight deliveries. Regardless, it saves us money because we won’t have to maintain infrastructure we aren’t using.

Lookout: Is the future of Roaring Camp really threatened by this vote?

Yes: Any threats to Roaring Camp are due to the condition of the rail corridor and economic failure of freight service and have nothing to do with Measure D, whose language explicitly protects Roaring Camp. Moreover, Measure D applies to the rail corridor from the San Lorenzo River bridge to Watsonville and does not affect the tracks that Roaring Camp owns or uses for the Beach Train.

Roaring Camp’s Beach Train is not threatened nor is its existing amusement park business. The hidden agenda of Roaring Camp is that it is asking taxpayers to foot a $65 million bill to repair 100-year-old freight tracks and a $30 million bill to replace the Capitola Trestle in order to get its two locomotives from Watsonville to Felton. Yes on D does not believe this is an appropriate subsidy for a private, for-profit business.

No: Yes, Roaring Camp is absolutely threatened by Measure D. If Measure D passes, railbanking will be pursued. If railbanking is successful, Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Line will be cut off from the national rail network and Roaring Camp will lose its federally mandated protections. Being cut off from the rail network will mean Roaring Camp will not be able to bring in vital new equipment, leading to a curtailment of operations such as the Beach Train. Loss of federal protections will mean local agencies, such as the RTC, will have the ability to control Roaring Camp’s access to the Boardwalk, as well as other destinations, and could even pursue eminent domain proceedings against Roaring Camp to gain ownership of portions of the Felton Branch Line. Passage of Measure D unequivocally threatens Roaring Camp’s future.

Environment, equity and cost

Lookout: You both say your plan is more environmentally friendly — how so?

Yes: No on D environmental claims are based solely on a train that is likely never to occur. There is NO impact on Highway 1 traffic for decades, if ever. With No on D, there will be fewer zero-emission bike and pedestrian trips on a trail because it’s narrow and detours onto city streets. And dramatic environmental damage will be done to the corridor NOW through the construction of large concrete retaining walls, the destruction of wildlife habitats, the building of new bridges and floating viaducts, and cutting hundreds of heritage trees.

Biking and walking on Greenway will substitute for short car trips, reducing GHG emissions immediately. Greenway goes along the existing rail bed, so none of the GHG-producing industrialization of the corridor is necessary. Greenway protects existing trees and vegetation and conforms to the Santa Cruz County climate vulnerability report, which encourages low-impact improvements to coastal areas and ocean bluffs.

No: The RTC’s rigorous Unified Corridor Investment Study decisively concluded that tearing out the tracks for a trail-only plan will increase harmful GHG emissions, when compared to using the corridor for both rail AND trail. This fact led to the RTC unanimously voting to support rail, with a trail located alongside the tracks. Also, a trail alongside the rail will carry the equivalent number of users as a trail only. Greenway has no data or head-to-head studies to refute this. More simply put, rail and trail actually does something really meaningful to address climate change, while a trail-only plan does virtually nothing. Experts and leaders have taken notice of this fact, with all of the following opposed to Measure D: the Sierra Club, Ecology Action, Regeneración Pájaro Valley Climate Action, Santa Cruz Climate Action Network, Youth for Climate Justice, noted ocean/climate sustainability leader Rachel Kippen and former governor Jerry Brown.

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

Lookout: You both say your plan is more equitable for this community, including those in South County. In what ways?

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TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

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No: Equity is about fairness and justice, recognizing the harmful legacy of past decisions and moving forward to address them. The per-capita income of South County residents is half that of those in Santa Cruz, Capitola and Scotts Valley. It’s no secret that commuting from South County to the job and education centers in North County costs a lot of precious time and gas. Adding rail service would cut commute times in half and the cost of commuting by about $500 or more every per month. Regardless of where you live, we will all benefit from car-free travel options to reduce time, stress and costs — this includes the very significant number of county residents who cannot drive themselves. Local organizations with a focus on equity agree that Measure D is a bad idea, including the NAACP Santa Cruz County Branch, Equity Transit, GLBT Alliance of Santa Cruz County and more.

Yes: The Greenway plan will create a safe and healthy bike and pedestrian trail across Harkins Slough and north to connect to beaches and schools. Because there is no room for a trail adjacent to the tracks in this area, the No on D plan detours the trail in Watsonville onto West Beach Street and San Andreas Road, with cars going 50 mph.

The claim by No on D that South County commuters will benefit from a train has been repeatedly disproved by RTC studies showing only 300 roundtrips per day from Watsonville to Santa Cruz. Fares would be triple those of METRO, which will suppress ridership. Ask most people in South County if they would take a train that is slow and doesn’t go near major employers, and the answer is no. No on D is selling a plan that is unrealistic, inequitable and won’t work.

Lookout: If your plan goes forward, who is going to pay for it?

Yes: The voters passed a transportation tax in 2016 that includes funding for Greenway. If that money is bonded, brought forward and combined with targeted and likely grants, Greenway is fully funded. It is the simplest and best way forward with existing funds.

The RTC has determined the transportation tax passed in 2016 is NOT sufficient to build the No on D plan. In fact, the No on D plan costs at least $100 million more than Greenway. It is complex, difficult to build, and results in a trail twice as expensive for a sub-optimal trail.

There is NO funding for the $1.3 billion cost to build and operate a train over 30 years. There is no rational argument to do rail-with-trail if we can’t fund a train.

No: Measure D doesn’t provide voters a choice between plans. However, should Measure D fail and the rail-trail project proceeds, the majority of funding would come from state and federal sources, like all major transportation projects. The vice-chair of the California Transportation Commission recently came to Santa Cruz to deliver exactly that message. There is broad agreement that funding for rail, not highway widening, is now available at the state and federal levels. Greenway would like voters to believe the only way future rail service could happen is via a massive local sales tax. They’d like voters to not know about state and federal funding. Though some local funding likely will be required, we could avoid a regressive sales tax and employ a more progressive approach. Portland’s Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility project offers a good example, featuring creative, diverse strategies that don’t include a sales or parcel tax.

What you need to know about the measures facing Santa Cruz County voters on the June 7 ballot.

The big takeaways on each vote

Lookout: What does a yes vote say about the future of Santa Cruz County? What does a no vote say?

No: What Measure D is really all about is whether we turn toward the future and make a better community, or do we close our eyes and pretend we live in a world that doesn’t need to worry about climate change, equity or smart planning for future growth.

A yes vote says we are OK with abandoning years of public process that developed and approved using the corridor for both, rail and trail. A yes vote says we are OK threatening a thriving local business that is deeply embedded in our community and provides essential services to first responders in times of emergency.

A no vote emphatically says we care about the suffering of people stuck in traffic hours every day, we care about the fight against climate change, we care about our children and grandchildren, and we believe in innovation, optimism and embracing a better future.

Yes: A yes vote means the people of Santa Cruz County are ready to move forward building a wide, beautiful, continuous and affordable trail without new taxes. It means they have realized that a train in Santa Cruz County is unrealistic for transit and financially infeasible. It means that our existing METRO public transit system provides more effective opportunities to get people moving.

A no vote means that despite all existing evidence, the people are not ready to give up the 100-year-old tracks and are willing to accept the status quo. This choice will result in trail detours, excessive cost, permanent environmental damage, and long delays resulting from insufficient funding.

Lookout: Who has been the dirtier player in this campaign and do you think the personal attacks have taken focus away from the real issues?

Yes: The No on D campaign has distorted the Greenway Initiative to confuse voters, and used harsh negativity to create animosity and division in our community. The result has been incessant personal attacks against Yes Greenway supporters, stealing and vandalization of over 500 Yes Greenway signs, and permission for its supporters to behave badly and shut down civil discourse. We hope that Santa Cruz County never sees this type of campaigning again.

The No on D leadership is fully responsible for the vitriol they have engendered. They hired an out-of-town political consultant with a track record for this type of negative campaign — they brought Trump tactics to Santa Cruz.

The Yes on D campaign has run a positive campaign focused on the Greenway Initiative. All our communications have focused on educating voters to achieve this end. A simple way to see the difference is to look at the two websites.

No: There are certainly eerie parallels to some of the national politics we’ve all witnessed since the 2016 presidential campaign, with people being bullied and falsely accused of wrongdoing, followed by those who are bullied saying “enough is enough” and standing up to the bullies, resulting in some assigning false equivalency to both sides. While it’s been at times distracting for voters, at the end of the day, despite all the noise, the ballot issue for voters remains simple at its core: Are we going to vote yes or no to the idea of tearing up the publicly owned rail line between Santa Cruz and Watsonville to construct a trail-only project and forever give up the possibility of future passenger rail transit? No Way Greenway is ready to get the question answered and move toward healing in the community. It’s time.