As he walks down Seabright’s railroad tracks, Miles Reiter steps over discarded potato chip bags and paper cups. He turns to face me under a eucalyptus grove hanging overhead in the narrow valley that is Santa Cruz County’s rail corridor—perhaps the most contested piece of real estate in the entire Monterey Bay.
Not far from the steel truss bridge over the San Lorenzo River, we near East Cliff Drive’s overpass, as cars zoom overhead. Reiter says the fifth-of-a-mile ravine where we’re standing isn’t wide enough to accommodate both a train and an adequate bike/pedestrian trail, like the one the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) has planned in its “rail trail” project that’s decades in the making.
“Because look at this—what’re you going to do with this?” says Reiter, gesturing around at graffiti-tagged concrete walls that hug the tracks rather tightly. “This is one of the narrowest spots, but it’s not all that unique. Every segment has issues. Pick your segment, and we’ll go see trouble.”
Reiter, an opponent of passenger rail service in the county, is pointing with his head more than his hands, as he’s holding a 22-and-a-half-foot rod that he brought to demonstrate how tight the corridor is and what problems engineers may run into should they really try to squeeze in adequate space for cyclists along the tracks.
This much-debated rail trail would be Santa Cruz County’s portion of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (MBSST). The accepted status quo was once a 22-or-so-mile train line running from South County to Santa Cruz, with a 12-to-16 foot-wide trail alongside it.
But Reiter and a group of like-minded activists had a different idea. They decided the train would never work—given the environmental cost of carving out space for it, the financial cost of building and maintaining it, and the estimated ridership, which they felt was too small to justify the project. They also felt that bicycles are the future. The question they asked themselves was: “What if we could just build a better trail?”
However, not everyone who’s tracked the developments is on the same platform.
On the other side of the issue is Barry Scott. A train lover with a graying curly beard, Scott says he keeps railroad studies with him at all times. They’re on his MacBook, in his side bag, on his iPhone, in his head.
He keeps an eye on the big picture, too. On a recent drive up to Marin County, Scott tells me that all the squabbling over the corridor has gotten out of hand, with activists seeking out only the perspectives they want.
“There’s a lot of confirmation bias—[thinking] ‘this is what I want,’ and then going and looking for information that supports it,” Scott explains to our driver, environmentalist Bill LeBon, who’s taking us up to San Rafael, where we’ll all board the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) train for a Saturday afternoon ride. “[Rail opponents] show all the train projects that come in over budget. I do it, too—I look for trains that came in under budget. I go onto Google and type in ‘train projects that came in under budget.’”
Beyond confessing to cherry picking his data, Scott is summarizing a chief reason the fight over the rail corridor has become so contentious. There are two camps, and both groups have been developing their own sets of facts in a scorching-hot debate—with each side fanning the flames, like a 19th century train conductor shoveling coal into his engine’s firebox to make the locomotive go faster.
Drawing the Lines
In the years before the RTC even voted to approve a purchase of the 142-year-old freight rail line with state money from Proposition 116, arguments have simmered about the corridor’s future. The commission first began exploring a purchase in 2001, with locals chirping in—either about whether or not it was wide enough to accommodate a trail, or more recently, whether or not it’s wide enough for a train. Escrow on the purchase finally closed in 2012.
Reiter started the Great Santa Cruz Trail Group in 2016 with venture capitalist Bud Colligan, a former rail trail supporter who once had a Friends of the Rail Trail (FORT) bumper sticker on his Prius Plug-in. Nearly a year ago, Great Santa Cruz Trail Group morphed into Greenway, a nonprofit that counts both Reiter and Colligan as board members and advocates for a trail-only approach to the corridor. Reiter, the former CEO of the berry company Driscoll’s, says that even if train-friendly planners can dig out enough of the corridor’s hillside to make room for a trail alongside the tracks, the combined trail and train project will never see enough use to justify the cost.
The MBSST Master Plan is ambiguous about where exactly the trail would go on this sliver of Seabright’s segment nine—one of three segments I’m surveying firsthand with Reiter during our three-hour Sunday morning stroll. (There are 20 segments total on the proposed trail.) The map shows a trail on the inland side of the tracks, but the plan’s text is more ambiguous, making it sound like the trail would get diverted up onto Murray Street without detailing the exact route. It’s one of a few confusing passages in the 2013 plan.
Reiter, who was skeptical of the train early on, first invited Colligan to walk part of the corridor with him three-and-a-half years ago. After they finished, Colligan—who’s out of the country until September—decided he and Reiter had to do something to change the conversation. He also ripped the FORT sticker off his car’s bumper.
They decided what the corridor needed was a better trail.
“This would be just a gorgeous trail, really functional,” says Reiter, swiveling his head, taking in the canopy around us. “By keeping the rail in place, this trail loses so much functionality. Our big interest is active transportation and reducing congestion and making people healthier, and it’s a better way to live and a better way for the community to be. But the element of creating a renowned, really fabulous, really safe beautiful bike trail that goes from Davenport to Pacific Grove—60, 70 miles. I’ve looked at all the most popular trails in the Western United States. This one would be the number one trail in the Western United States. It is wide enough. It’s wider than most trails. This would get so much use.”
In some places, their trail would be a slightly wider version of what the RTC already proposed, giving more room for speedy cyclists to pass those going for a jog or pushing a baby stroller through what Greenway supporters sometimes call “a linear park.” In other areas, there would be separated bike and pedestrian paths. This way, they say, the trail can get more use from all groups—both from those looking for leisure and those trying to commute to work or school more quickly.
Reiter periodically pauses to put one end of his yellow pole against the railroad ties and places the rod’s other end down, leaning it against the tree-covered slope. Every cubic foot of hillside and each tree that falls into the pole’s path would theoretically need to come out in the RTC’s plan. Reiter says the rod gives a sense of what the “physical capacity” of the corridor is, and to him every inch matters.
Colligan and Reiter argue that the future of transportation will take a much different path than that of previous generations. The flexibility of self-driving cars and ride-sharing will make commuters less interested in transit, they say, and electric bicycles will allow ordinary cyclists to travel longer distances on bike trails than ever before. A presentation that Colligan sent me this past fall argued that Watsonville’s working poor would have a difficult time affording train fares anyway.
One thing is certain: The discussion, both for and against the train, is being driven by wealthy, retired white men who say they want to get people moving—building a happier, healthier, more vibrant county.
Full Steam Ahead
It’s a hot autumn day on Santa Cruz’s upper Westside. Retired engineer Mark Mesiti-Miller, who’s given voice to train supporters with his high-profile campaigning on the issue, is sitting in his backyard, which overlooks Santa Cruz. From his patio, we can almost see segment eight of the tracks, where they pass in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. He’s cracked open a Rail Trail IPA, which Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing had crafted over the summer to raise money for FORT. The brew flew off the shelves, with 200 cases selling out the first weekend, but Mesiti-Miller still has a small stash going in his refrigerator months later.
A Santa Cruz planning commissioner disheartened about rampant inequality, he isn’t buying the notion that a wider trail is helpful for the county’s poorest families, and certainly doesn’t think it would be any better than a train.
“It’s wrong. Bud need look no further than his own private study, the study funded by the Great Santa Cruz Trail Group. He can look at the ridership estimates for his trail-only solution, and he could see that only 147 new recreational or utilitarian cyclists will shift from other modes in traveling from Watsonville to La Selva,” says Mesiti-Miller, a former cyclist who’s broken a sweat riding from Santa Cruz to Watsonville on two-hour Saturday morning rides. “And I think those are optimistic numbers. And so to argue that is somehow equitable is wrong, when there are thousands of people that would use the rail. It’s not even close. That he makes that argument is laughable. It’s wrong. It’s delusional. He can say it, and he does. And he says it very convincingly. It’s a zero-entry point. It’s like, ‘OK, yeah, you can buy a bicycle for very little money. But it doesn’t get you anywhere, to buy a bicycle for people who can’t ride a bike.’”
Ride of Passage
Back in the Ford Bronco, which runs on half gasoline and half alcohol, LeBon is taking us up Highway 1 on our way to the SMART train. His blue pickup truck rumbles through a foggy, overcast mist, with Scott riding shotgun as I sit bunched up in the compact backseat, scribbling down notes.
It was LeBon, a fossil fuel-hating transportation activist, who first pitched the idea for the field trip to a few fellow environmentalists from the local Sierra Club, which has supported the rail trail proposal. LeBon invited me along as well. In 1991, he rollerbladed across the country to raise $10,000 for the Rails to Trails Conservancy. He also co-founded local environmental operations like the Hub for Sustainable Transportation, the PedX bicycle couriers and the Green Station. Although he’s an avid cyclist, he says trains are a great way to move people sustainably.
In the coming decades, according to Mesiti-Miller, trains will become a regular part of the county’s transportation ecosystem. Caltrans’ recent draft State Rail Plan has outlined billions of dollars for train projects across the state, and the county’s share of that could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, enough for “super-deluxe passenger rail systems—fully electric, quiet crossings, the whole nine yards,” he says. Travelers and commuters, Mesiti-Miller explains, will be able to transfer in Pajaro Valley and head up to Silicon Valley. The rail plan’s executive summary maps out rail lines around the state that could be active by 2040 and includes Santa Cruz County.
Skeptical of promises of state money, Gail McNulty, Greenway’s executive director, doesn’t think the county will see a dime of that without passing a sales tax measure. Such a tax would come on top of Measure D, which, after passing in 2016, is providing cash across five transportation sectors—including for the rail trail, as well as rail corridor repairs and train analysis.
Using some of that Measure D cash, the RTC is currently studying how to improve transportation via its Unified Corridor Study, with findings on track to come out by the end of the year. The commission is studying the best use for three major corridors, Highway 1, Soquel Drive and the rail corridor. Along the corridor, RTC staff is putting four ideas forward, and each of them includes a trail in some capacity: passenger rail service, freight rail service, bus rapid transit along segments of the corridor, and a wider bike and pedestrian trail with no tracks.
Open to alternatives, Greenway supporters have been floating the bus rapid transit idea as a different approach for the corridor. Depending on the routes, the buses could allow riders to take the bus to the exact stop where they want to go, instead of being stuck on the tracks.
As LeBon’s Bronco putters up a 19th Street hill in San Francisco, I bring up the idea of bus rapid transit—asking if it provides all the benefits of trains and then some. “People love trains. We’re not riding all the way up to Sonoma to go ride on a bus,” says LeBon, who’s wearing a faded blue Kona Big Wave Golden Ale shirt. “People love trains, and that’s exciting. That’s fun. [Buses] don’t have that sex appeal, and if you want to get people out of their cars, buses aren’t very sexy, but trains are. People go all the way up to Sonoma just to ride the train because it’s fun.”
The RTC estimates the rail trail will come out to $127 million and the train could be anywhere from an estimated $93 million to $176 million, depending on the specifics of the chosen scenario. That total doesn’t include yearly operational costs. Greenway’s consultants have said their plan would come out to $50-$70 million.
Both camps castigate their opponents’ estimates as laughably optimistic.
“What the fuck are they talking about?!” yells Reiter, smacking his copy of the MBSST plan with the backside of his hand.
We’re standing in Aptos Village staring at the corridor—both in front of us and via the renderings on the page. Reiter didn’t even bother to bring his measuring rod with him out of the car for this segment, and he doesn’t have to.
It appears obvious enough to me that the scene before us looks nothing like the plan’s drawing, an image that resembles a high school art project more than it does a professional rendering.
The illustration shows Soquel Drive on the left, along with ample parking on both sides of the trail and tracks and a tree that was left untouched. In the actual scene, those are all in much closer proximity, leaving the impression that something’s got to give. Even if a trail does fit, it looks like the parking and trees will be history. It all strikes Reiter as deceptive.
“They just went and drew something that had nothing to do with [reality], and they put the name of the street and the existing parking,” says Reiter, who believes the design groups that drew these images should be sued.
There’s another element that has got him steaming mad. Mesiti-Miller likes to say that most of the rail trail will be 16 feet wide and the rest will be 12. It’s an interpretation that Reiter takes issue with. He notes that the 2013 MBSST plan, after all, shows an 8- to 12-foot-wide trail with two-foot shoulders on each side. However, since then, I later learn, the RTC has signaled that it will do a 12- to 16-foot trail with no shoulders.
Still, given the narrowness of many corridor segments, Reiter says the RTC would end up diverting much of its bike path down local roads near the corridor. When Greenway hired Alta Planning + Design, out of San Jose, to do an analysis, consultants found that needed diversions from the route between Seacliff and Live Oak would lead to a 35 percent drop in bike ridership along that stretch.
Mesiti-Miller, who notes that the plan won a series of planning awards, doesn’t see renderings like this one as deceptive. The retired engineer says in essence that the concepts are beyond Reiter’s pay grade—and mine, for that matter.
“I would describe that phenomenon as the difference between an engineer and everyone else. And I don’t mean that in any kind of negative way. It’s just a reality. When people like myself or train professionals, or the people who put together Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Plan—when they prepare a master plan, they have the ability to look at that same drawing and say, ‘I see how this can work.’ And I’m not bragging. It’s just a fact. It’s a gift that people in my profession have,” says Mesiti-Miller, who also acknowledges that the items depicted in the image—the trees, the parking—very well may not end up in the final picture, once the project’s done.
The green SMART train makes seven stops as it rolls smoothly from San Rafael to the Sonoma County Airport, passing pastures dotted with sheep and cattle along the way. A café sells coffee, tea, beer, wine, and a few light meals. Casey Beyer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber will be taking a trip of its own on SMART next month so its members can take in the whole experience for themselves.
Many rows of the train’s special-grade vinyl seats face forward, but each car has a few tables for groups to chat. LeBon, Scott and Keresha Durham, who serves on the local Sierra Club’s executive committee, and I manage to find a free one.
“You know what I notice about the train?” LeBon tells us. “Listen to all the people talking, all the conversations. This doesn’t happen in cars or even on buses. I hear more conversation on trains than on buses.”
Earlier that day, a group of Santa Cruzans, including LeBon and Durham, had gotten off the train early to ride the trail that goes down the corridor, while Scott and I stayed and took the train all the way to the end of the line. The cyclists met us on the way back after riding several miles, during which they only saw a couple pedestrians and a couple cyclists. LeBon and Durham say there was more than enough room. “There was no traffic. It was great,” LeBon says. “It’s no big deal. There’s a train track. There’s a trail. It’s a no-brainer.”
More than six months in, the train’s ridership has lived up to expectations—something SMART managers have lauded as a great success, given how October’s fires ravaged and displaced so much of Sonoma County and caused the population of some regions to drop. Managers have had to add extra cars to accommodate a surprisingly large cycling community.
But the whole day’s round trip fare comes out to $23 per person, hardly affordable for a working family, I can’t help but mention. Scott says a better model for Santa Cruz’s possible train may be the Sprinter, a 22-mile rail line that runs through North County San Diego. “SMART’s not representative of necessarily what we would have,” Scott says. “It’s going further distances. It’s a bigger train. It’s more expensive and faster.”
Looking out the window a few months prior, McNulty had a different view on that same ride. She took SMART the entire length of the tracks herself, and says she noticed the Marin-Sonoma’s corridor is much more open than Santa Cruz County’s. “They have two tracks in lots of locations,” says McNulty. “Their stations tend to be very wide. Also, look at their parking. Look at the types of things they’ve had room to build. I don’t know what we would do to build that here.”
At its current juncture, Greenway’s leaders don’t know exactly what path their organization will be taking next.
The next major stop for enthusiasts is more than six months away, as Greenway awaits results from the Unified Corridor Study, says Manu Koenig, an independent contractor and canvasser for the nonprofit. “And then we’re going to have the plan to move forward, and it’s a time to engage the public,” he says.
Koenig gathers signatures from locals in support of Greenway. He also manages a team of fellow independent contractors, each of whom gets paid per signature for petitioning county residents and convincing them to sign onto the proposal. These signatures show support for the plan but aren’t legally binding and could not be used to submit a ballot measure. Still, Koenig says that if he can show an elected official that “there are 2,000 people in your district that support the Greenway plan, that changes their minds a little bit.”
There had been chatter about gathering signatures for an actual ballot initiative, but McNulty says that Greenway will “probably not” pursue a measure for the November election. The deadline to file is Aug. 10, and a countywide measure requires that a group submit more than 7,000 signatures.
The California Coastal Commission rolled into quarrelsome territory this past February when it wrote a letter to Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, weighing in on transportation planning. The letter expressed firm support for passenger rail service in the region, including through Santa Cruz County.
The letter got bandied about by train enthusiasts, with Mesiti-Miller confidently sharing it with GT and repeatedly calling the Coastal Commission an “immovable object,” proclaiming that if Greenway ever wanted to rip up tracks, they would have to go through the notoriously powerful body first.
After the SMART train ride, on our walk back to the car, Scott went one step further, telling me that he wanted to hold the Coastal Commission’s letter up to the Greenway folks and say, “This is the death of you.”
But only a couple days later, it became clear that the commission had no interest in being the nail in any organization’s proverbial coffin. In a letter to the RTC, the Coastal Commission clarified that it would not take a position on whether or not to implement passenger rail service—but rather feels that local leaders should keep options open for buses or trains along the corridor.
“We’re not an immovable force,” Susan Craig, the Coastal Commission’s deputy director for the Central Coast, explains to GT, “and we’re willing to listen to different perspectives and modify our position.”
The saga is but a glimpse into how, when a group of stakeholders gets an inch, they’ll try and take a mile.
As for Greenway, Reiter concedes that he’s heard people say, “There’s so much lying on both sides, I don’t know what to believe.”
He also knows that Brian Peoples, the anti-train executive director of Trail Now, which predates Greenway, sometimes comes off as abrasive in public meetings and on social media. “Brian gets a little extreme now and then,” says Reiter, although he’s also donated $5,000 to Trail Now and believes that Peoples has ultimately helped move the anti-rail discussion forward.
Peoples admits that he’s impatient when it comes to improving the corridor, and says he likes holding politicians accountable. He explains that he even encouraged Reiter and Colligan to start their own separate organization, one that would be more palatable to those who didn’t want to stoop to Trail Now’s level.
Before Greenway launched, Peoples, a strategic and missile defense engineer, says he told Colligan and Reiter that their mutual anti-rail cause could benefit from a friendlier ally. A separate coalition, he suggested, could appeal to a different demographic: business owners, folks with political connections and those who “don’t want to get into the mud.”
“Because in a pig fight,” Peoples says, “everyone gets muddy.”
Santa Cruz County is a community that prides itself on shared values. However, when it comes to what to do with this old freight line, the tone sometimes manages to mirror the rancorous partisanship happening in Washington D.C.—if not even make it look a little tame.
Ron Goodman spent the mid-1990s as the director of People Power, now called Bike Santa Cruz County, and he says he hasn’t seen such an unsightly fight since the early days of Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail debate, which he calls “similarly ugly” for how it pitted groups of environmentalists against each other as it dragged on for 20 years.
After years of hearing from both sides and studying the issue closely, Goodman thinks the rail corridor would work best as a thoroughfare for buses, alongside a multi-use trail. And although he doesn’t think a train will ever happen in Santa Cruz, he says there has been misinformation from both sides.
Greenway’s yard signs, for instance, promise there will be “no trees axed,” a platitude that sounds unrealistic to me—especially if Greenway commits to separate trails for pedestrians and cyclists for any appreciable stretch of the corridor. I mention my confusion about that detail to Goodman.
“All sides have stories that don’t add up,” Goodman says, laughing at the perplexity of the face off. In a perfect world, he feels the messy discussion could get decided by a government subcommittee.
“It’s crazy!” he adds. “So it’s really hard to have conversations with everyone, and they don’t think they have to be held down by reality.”
Update 4/18/18 11:12 a.m.: This story was changed to clarify details about Ron Goodman’s statements.