A quarter of Rail Trail will be built in the next two years
A murmur filled the air as nearly 100 people crowded the Hotel Paradox conference room on a cold Tuesday night. As the audience mingled among the holiday decorations and twinkling lights, anticipation permeated conversations around the room. The sentiment was warranted, considering the topic at hand has been nearly two decades in the making: the 32-mile, bicycle-and-pedestrian-only Coastal Rail Trail.
On Dec. 8, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County (LTSCC) held a presentation hosted by deputy director Stephen Slade—with guests Cory Caletti, senior planner for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, and Bike Santa Cruz County director, Amelia Conlen—on the current progress of the project, which is in full swing. “One-fourth of the Rail Trail will be built in the next two years,” Slade said. “A year ago, I don’t think anyone would’ve believed that.”
According to the report released last month by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy based in Washington D.C., there are 440 rail trail projects throughout the nation stretching more than 3,000 miles. The report highlights the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail as being within one mile of half the county’s population and providing access to 44 schools and 92 parks.
A trail is not a project that the LTSCC, a conservation group, would normally embrace, but Slade says they became involved when Caletti changed their interpretation of the trail, calling it a “transportation corridor.”
“It’s a means for people getting around our county,” he told the crowd. “We basically came to the realization that it’s a road without cars.”
Stretching from Davenport to Watsonville, the Coastal Rail Trail will serve as the backbone to a greater 50-mile project called the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network. The Santa Cruz County portion will feature an 8-foot path—alternating between paved and unpaved road—with an extra 2 feet of buffer zone on either side.
“Across the country, protected bike lanes have dramatically increased the rate of cycling because people feel safe,” explained Conlen.
According to the 2014 Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Plan, 75 percent of the commuters traveling to work in Santa Cruz County are also residents. Proponents argue that giving commuters a safer option to travel will mean fewer cars on the road and fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a health benefit for the entire community.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission estimates the project will cost a total of $127 million and take 10 years to complete in full. While the cost may seem staggering, supporters point to the fact that it is a one-time expense.
Each section of the project will be completed as funds are raised, allowing for what Caletti calls “geographical equity” between the North and South bays. Along with a $7 million grant from 2013, an additional $11 million was awarded this year, affording the 2018 completion date of eight miles.
Caletti stressed that the $11 million Federal Lands Access Grant needed to complete the project by 2018 would not have been awarded if the LTSCC had not committed $3.3 million toward the project. “As with all of these projects, it’s a mix of funding sources,” Caletti said at the presentation. “It really does take a village.”
Two of those miles will stretch from Natural Bridges State Park to Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, with an open-house meeting for the public to discuss the plans sometime next year. Another five miles will run from the North Coast to Wilder Ranch State Park, although funding for the leg to Davenport has yet to be raised. The third section will run through the heart of Watsonville and connect with Pajaro Valley High School.
“In the city of Santa Cruz, 13 percent of kids bike or walk to school, which is pretty consistent with the national average,” explained Conlen. “However, in the county only 1 percent do.”
In an unprecedented move, two anonymous private donors have also promised to match any donations toward the Rail Trail between now and the end of January 2016, with no limits. “I was stunned to silence,” Slade told GT with a chuckle. “I almost wanted to say, ‘really?’ but didn’t want to give them a second chance to back out.”
Even with such a generous offer, planners still see funding as the biggest challenge to the trail.
One proposal is a sales tax increase currently being examined for voters on the November 2016 ballot. The half-percent increase would fund roughly $68 million toward the Rail Trail—and other transportation projects and upkeep—over a 30-year period.
Supporters also argue that most of the infrastructure is already in place. Ninety-nine percent of the path already meets the minimum 25-foot width needed to safely accommodate pedestrian and rail travelers alike. Plus, since trains do not do well on hills, there is only a 3 percent gradient in the path, making access easy for people of all ages. As Caletti told the Paradox Hotel audience, the Regional Transportation Commission plans for the “eight to 80” age range.
Slade says that once the first segment is built, people won’t have to imagine it anymore. “It’s going to be a wonderful way for people to get around the county,” Slade says, “and I think they will be amazed.”
TRACKING PROGRESS The Rail Trail will take a decade and $127 million to complete in full, with funding from a variety of sources.