As it’s drawn up, a trail along the rail corridor will hug the Santa Cruz coastline, ribboning under eucalyptus groves and linking Davenport to South County.
“This is going to be something that draws people from around the country, from around the state, around the world,” says Amelia Conlen, transportation coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz and the outgoing executive director for the nonprofit Bike Santa Cruz County. “The end goal is to connect it up to the Monterey bike path, so that it’s completely encircling the Monterey Bay.”
The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail—often called the Coastal Rail Trail or rail with trail—has been rolling ahead faster than many thought possible three years ago, when it got approval from the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC).
It’s also a hot item this election season.
Although the trail has not broken ground yet, about a third of the 32-mile trail has secured some funding, and about a quarter has been funded through construction. Conlen calls the fundraising achievements “incredible” so far. And a measure on this year’s ballot promises about $85 million more.
“If Measure D passes, then we’ll have a pot of construction money ready to go,” says Conlen, who has still been filling in one day a week at the nonprofit, while it searches for its next executive director.
Funding so far has been raised by advocacy groups like Friends of the Rail Trail, Bike Santa Cruz County and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County—all of which have thrown their support behind Measure D—and RTC staff helped secure additional federal funding for a trail that some environmentalists think could be a keystone for the area.
“You go to so many places in California or in Colorado or even on the East Coast, and they have these bike features on the rivers or the rail line,” says Piet Canin, vice president of transportation for Ecology Action and a board member for Friends of the Rail Trail, both of which have endorsed Measure D.
The $500 million in the hotly contested Measure D, which is on the Nov. 8 ballot, would come from a half-cent sales tax. The tax would replace a quarter-cent sales tax, amounting to a 25 percent increase over current levels. The text of the measure divides the money into five projects, the biggest being “neighborhood projects” with about $135 million going to local road improvements and bike lanes and $15 million more split between improvements in the San Lorenzo Valley and a wildlife crossing over Highway 17.
Measure D promises 25 percent, or about $125 million, of the money for highway improvements, the most controversial part of the measure. Some of that would pay for bicycle and pedestrian bridges over Highway 1, but most of it would fund auxiliary lanes, which would run from onramp to off-ramp from Santa Cruz south to State Park Drive.
Activist Rick Longinotti notes that a CalTrans environmental analysis of highway widening found that there would be negligible improvement in traffic reduction, despite the fact that the document was looking at a more comprehensive approach than what the measure would fund. The impact from Measure D, he argues, would be even smaller.
“Auxiliary lanes do a real disservice to the people in Aptos because it’s not going to do the job that’s promised to reduce congestion,” Longinotti says.
The rest of the money is slated for buses, Lift Line services, the rail trail, and an analysis of options for the rail corridor, including a look at possible passenger services.
Getting a Handle
Mindy White, a doctor working in internal medicine in Capitola, loves taking short bike rides around town with her daughters, ages 6 and 9.
“We do a lot of biking, and I love the idea of a trail. I think making it easier and safer for people to bike with more bike lanes, better marked—I think that’s super important,” says White, a Measure D supporter who says that she and her husband Boone love to take their daughters cycling down the Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail, which opened last year. “It makes biking much less nerve-racking. And then, I do support the highway widening. I support the auxiliary lanes. I think they have done something. Traffic is at a crisis point. And if we don’t do something about traffic, people will just cut through neighborhoods.”
Although she generally tries hard to avoid rush hour traffic, White, who lives in Seabright, says the auxiliary lanes from Ocean Street to Soquel Avenue have already sped up traffic, and she hopes extending them would help even more. Still, she hasn’t been able to convince everyone in her house that the measure would change streets any noticeable amount. Her husband Boone calls the whole plan a scattered “shotgun approach” that won’t make a difference in any one area.
With the amount of growth county and city leaders expect, he says, the new merge lanes would clog up with as much traffic as ever in no time.
“It’s just putting a Band-Aid on a problem that’s probably not going to be helped by a Band-Aid. It’s not going to accommodate those people,” says Boone, a lawyer who bikes into work on Ocean Street everyday.
He isn’t exactly sure how he’d like to fix congestion, but it would probably involve a bigger investment in public transportation, he says.
Longinotti—the leading activist who convinced the city to put a desalination plant on hold—hopes that if he and others can now block highway widening, it will force government leaders to re-think how to approach transportation.
RTC officials say that a balanced measure with something for everyone has the best shot at passing. But activists would like to see something come back without the highway in it and with more funding for METRO buses, which recently scaled back service and isn’t sure how much they could restore under Measure D.
It would mean at least two years of deeper cuts to METRO, a gamble Longinotti’s willing to take if it might mean a more robust system in a few years.
It’s anyone’s guess when the next vote would be. The last time a transportation measure was on the ballot was 12 years ago, when voters defeated a more lopsided measure aiming to spend $360 million on highway widening. Since then, experts, politicians and pollsters spent years weighing in on how to create a measure with more balance.
Meanwhile, the county’s roads are falling apart quickly, with the county’s newly released pavement condition index ranked 50th out of 58 counties. And according to a chart from the county’s public works, the cost of major road rehabilitation once a road has begun deteriorating can run five to eight times more expensive than more routine restoration.
D and Health
Stephen Gray, the chief administrative officer at Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center of Santa Cruz, says he has decided to support Measure D partly because of traffic congestion, and partly because of the problem traffic congestion can cause for doctors and patients in an emergency.
“My doctors don’t have sirens on their cars, so they can’t get through when they’ve been called. Certain specialty positions could be in an office seeing a patient, and then they need to get into a hospital if there’s an emergency. If it takes a lot of extra time because of traffic, that can be a real concern,” says Gray, who adds that any improvement in flow would also help ambulances get through more quickly as well.
He also hopes that more sidewalks and better bike lanes would keep locals safer. The new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, he says, would also create a healthier, more active county.
Mindy White says she too wants to see the measure pass to make people’s lives a little healthier and a little happier.
“That’s my big thing. Quality of life. We just work so hard,” she says. “Everyone spends so much time working. If you have kids, there’s so little time for a social life. If you’re spending all that time in the car everyday, it’s a huge bummer, it’s a huge loss.”