A 32-mile combination light rail line and pedestrian and bicycle trail from Davenport to Watsonville may finally be on the road to reality, according to backers of the project. It’s been a dream of Santa Cruz County transportation planners for decades. But opponents still say the project is impractical and should be scrapped in favor of only a trail, with no rail.
Regardless, the fate of the largely abandoned freight right-of-way that runs the length of the county is still years away from being decided.
The new optimism over the so-called Rail and Trail project comes as county officials line up a series of events designed to build public support for the plan, which has been under discussion as far back as the late 1980s. This week, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District will stage a pair of informational open houses: Tuesday evening in Santa Cruz and Wednesday evening in Watsonville. Meanwhile, construction officially began last month on the first major segment of the project, a 1.3-mile section on the western edge of the city of Santa Cruz.
“Finally, finally, after three decades, we’re breaking ground,” said Stephen Slade, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, at a groundbreaking ceremony on January 25. Local politicians, neighbors and community leaders attended.
Sally Arnold, board chairwoman of the advocacy group Friends of the Rail and Trail, said this will be a pivotal year in the life of the project.
“It’s pivotal because we’re going to get this segment built,” Arnold said, noting that construction on a second segment, in Watsonville, is scheduled to begin this spring. “And then it’s also pivotal because this is the year that the Regional Transportation Commission is studying the different modes of public transit they might choose to put on those tracks.”
This year’s developments have been a long time coming.
California voters approved funding in 1990 to allow counties like Santa Cruz without passenger rail service to purchase freight lines for public transit. As freight traffic on the Santa Cruz to Watsonville Branch Line dwindled, discussions about adapting the line for passenger traffic gained steam.
In 2012, with the help of $11 million in state funds, the Regional Transportation Commission purchased the right-of-way from Union Pacific Corporation for $14.2 million. The following year, the RTC approved a master plan that detailed the rail and trail combination. And in 2016, the county asked voters to approve Measure D, a one-half cent sales tax increase, with 17% of the proceeds going toward the proposed Coastal Rail Trail.
Opponents argued the concept was impractical and expensive, that trains would be noisy, and that an active rail line would cut off coastal access in large swaths of the county. A community group called the Great Santa Cruz Trail Group, which later changed its name to Greenway, commissioned its own study that recommended turning the right-of-way into only a trail, saving millions of dollars in construction and operating costs even after paying back the state for the purchase of the tracks.
But Measure D passed overwhelmingly. In 2018, the RTC approved a contract with Minnesota-based Progressive Rail to eventually develop passenger service on the tracks. Then, last year, commissioners approved a “Unified Corridor Study” that incorporated the Coastal Rail Trail in the area’s overall transportation scheme. RTC Executive Director Guy Preston said the question of what to do with the right-of-way is essentially settled.
“According to the commissioners, that battle is over,” he said. “The direction that transportation is going in this state is for more sustainable methods. It’s for active transportation. It’s for mass transit. So, it is very important that we consider both components.”
The section of the Rail Trail now under construction runs from the corner of Bay and California Streets on the West Side of Santa Cruz to Schaffer Road on the western edge of town, where it will connect with the Wilder Ranch bicycle path.
“30-thousand people live within one mile of this segment,” said Sally Arnold of Friends of the Rail and Trail. “And people will be able to push their strollers, walk their dogs, get on their bikes, roll in their wheelchairs safely away from traffic.”
But about 7 miles down the track, in Capitola, Greenway board member Bud Colligan pointed out a much different setting. Here, next to tree-lined Park Ave. heading into Capitola Village, the track runs through a narrow corridor, with steep embankments on either side.
“It doesn’t work here because, as you can see, the width of the corridor is not sufficient,” he said.
Colligan noted that the track alone requires a 17-foot right-of way. Using a metal tape measure, he showed that the existing corridor is only slightly wider than that, allowing space for rail or trail, but not both—at least, he claims, without removing hundreds of trees, moving tons of earth, and building elaborate and costly retaining walls.
“We don’t support cutting down heritage trees. We don’t support building 20-foot-high retaining walls. We don’t support costs that are three times the original budget, and we support effective transportation solutions that this county can afford,” he said.
Colligan said there are dozens of problematic spots like this one along the 32-mile right-of-way, including bridges, trestles, and even areas where buildings practically butt against the tracks.
“Each segment is going to require its own plan, money to build it, which in many cases they won’t have, and ultimately, political support to get it done,” he said.
But with the county moving full speed ahead on the rail and trail concept, Colligan said Greenway is changing its strategy. Rather than actively opposing the project, the group is supporting candidates for public office who favor the trail-only option. He said the plan now is to play a long game.
“Eventually, public support for this project will collapse, and we’re just waiting for that to happen,” Cooligan said.
Backers of the Rail Trail say that is nonsense. They believe that events like this year’s groundbreaking ceremonies, the informational open houses, and demonstration projects that will allow the public to see and experience actual light rail vehicles on the existing tracks will all serve to solidify public support.
But either way, it will be a long time before anyone knows the outcome. Planners say that even if everything goes according to schedule, it will be ten years until the trail is complete, and ten years after that before the trains are running. That would put the project’s completion in 2040, roughly 50 years after the debate began.