An impartial look at the contentious future of Santa Cruz County's rail corridor
On June 7th, Santa Cruz County voters will weigh in on the future of the rail corridor that runs between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
The county currently plans to upgrade the tracks along the corridor to include a public rail transit system with a walking and biking path alongside.
A “yes” vote on Measure D, also known as the Greenway Initiative, challenges that plan. It advocates for removing the tracks entirely and creating a wider paved trail.
A “no” vote would support the county’s current plan: rail and trail in the corridor.
Sound simple? It’s not. Measure D is by far the most contentious issue on the ballot. Like so many political issues these days, this one has divided friends and neighbors across the county.
And stuck in the middle of all of it is Guy Preston, the executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, or RTC.
"The politics have turned very negative, very pointed and very personal," he said. "This has been exhausting for everybody. I'm trying to keep my head down and provide options to the commission."
The RTC has the final say in what happens with the rail corridor. As a staff member, Preston does not have a vote on the RTC.
It’s important to note that the RTC acts independently of the county. Whether Measure D passes or fails will likely influence how the RTC votes, but doesn’t guarantee any outcome.
We wanted to ask Preston for some basic, impartial information about the rail corridor.
This interview has been editied for length and clarity
Guy Preston (GP): Measure D is a citizens initiative. And it was placed on the ballot to change the general plan for the county. RTC is a separate agency for the county. So to us, it's more an advisory measure, but it is not one without emotions and heated debate. What it'll actually do is hard to say. It depends on how the policymakers interpret the results of the election.
Jerimiah Oetting (JO): Didn't voters affirm their interest in a public rail transit option in the corridor in 2016, when, I think it was also called Measure D, was first passed to support rail funding?
GP: Well, that's open to interpretation. If the best use of the corridor is determined to be something other than rail. Then the funding can be directed at a different direction for projects on and near the rail corridor. So there's considerable debate as to whether or not the 2016 Measure D really did affirm rail or provide money for determining what the best use of the corridor is.
JO: I wanted to ask you a little bit about rail baking...that's the first step in the Greenway plan where tracks are removed and paved over to create the trail. Is the rail corridor in any potential jeopardy if it isn’t railbanked?
GP: The rail corridor itself isn't in jeopardy as long as we continue using it for rail. What is in jeopardy is our ability to build a trail on some of the rail easements. When you own an easement for rail purposes, that easement is for the purpose of railroad facilities. A trail can be argued does not meet the definition of a railroad, and some of those property owners could contest the trail being built in any configuration on an easement that was purchased for only railroad purposes.
JO: So does railbanking help sort of sidestep those easement concerns if railbanked for future rail use?
GP: Yes. So you would be railbanking for the future reactivation of freight rail, but that entire corridor would then be protected and could be used for any purpose. It could be used for rail only. You don't have to remove the rail at all. It could be used for rail and trail. It could be used for a bus-way. It could be used for just a trail. The key element is that the railroad would have to be preserved and future reactivation could not be precluded.
JO: So can you speak generally to the advantages of rail banking and the disadvantages?
GP: The advantages to rail banking is that we would be able to preserve the rail facility and use the facility for whatever purpose RTC wanted to, whether it be only passenger rail or whether it be rail and trail or some other purpose, you know, even just a trail. The disadvantages is that there is opposition and there's opposition by community members as well as Roaring Camp.
JO: Can we talk a little bit about Roaring Camp? They vehemently oppose Measure D. I think they've made that pretty clear. What are the impacts to them if Measure D passes and the RTC moves in that direction?
GP: So immediately there shouldn't be any impact because the portion of the rail line that they use for their beach train is not part of the rail line that we would consider removing any railroad tracks from. And they are currently already cut off from the main network due to damage on the rail line that RTC can’t afford to repair. So if RTC were to over time be able to fund the repairs and connect Roaring Camp back to the rail line, they would be able to move equipment between Watsonville and Santa Cruz, and that's something that's desirable to them.
JO: Can you talk about the other things the RTC is working on that aren't on the rail corridor? I'm thinking specifically about the auxiliary lanes, bus-on-shoulder, those options. Those are already happening, correct?
GP: So correct. We were successful in receiving a rather large grant for two highway projects from Soquel Avenue all the way to State Park. That would be three sets of auxiliary lanes. And between the auxiliary lanes, the busses will be allowed to to ride on the shoulders to bypass the traffic.
We included in that application also improvements on Soquel Drive that include adaptive signal control so that the traffic signals will see that a bus is coming and turn green.
And we plan to do further improvements on Soquel drive and even purchase some zero-emission buses so that we can have more express service between Watsonville and Santa Cruz.
JO: So you've worked really closely with this issue. Is there any final bits of advice you'd offer or anything for voters who are maybe trying to decide how to vote?
GP: I can't really advise people how to vote on this measure. I think the best information is really the county's impartial analysis on the Greenway Initiative. I would encourage people to to look at the facts, to look at the impartial analysis, and to make the choice that they feel is best for our community.
I hope that people stay civil and realize that there are two sides to this. And both sides have good ideas and good positions. And the more civility that we could bring to the to the debate, the easier it's going to be on reaching an agreement.
That was Guy Preston, the executive director of the Santa Cruz RTC.
This story is part of a three-part series of interviews about Measure D and the future of the Santa Cruz County rail corridor. A shorter version of this story aired on June 2.