Civil engineer Chris Schneiter Rail Trail Segment 7

What Rail Trail’s Segment 7 Means for the Rest of the Project

With construction on the path ready to go out to bid, critics see signs of trouble

Civil engineer Chris Schneiter surveys 34- by 22-inch construction drawings of the rail trail near Almar Avenue on the Westside. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

[This is part three of a series on the future of Santa Cruz County’s rail corridor. Read Part one here, read part two here, read part four here, and read part five here.]

Chris Schneiter, Santa Cruz’s assistant director of public works, calls the crossroads of Rankin and Seaside streets “a tricky intersection.” There are a few of them on this 1.3-mile segment of the rail trail running from Natural Bridges Drive to Bay Street that should be open by next spring.

In order to lay down a bike and pedestrian trail through the Westside of Santa Cruz, builders will have to transform the juncture near the Mission Street Safeway from a four-way intersection into something more creative. Engineers realized they couldn’t add extra stop signs on Rankin Street, as that would force cars to stop on the railroad tracks that border the proposed trail. Nor could they route the trail directly along the tracks the entire way, because that would send the trail through the intersection at an awkward diagonal angle. Instead, the new path will veer hard, stopping on Seaside and allowing cyclists to turn onto the street and then rejoin the trail on the other side of the intersection.

Design features like these keep cyclists and pedestrians on the path, instead of sending them on complicated reroutes that would decrease use of the highly anticipated trail that could one day stretch 32 miles, all the way from Watsonville to Davenport, with trains carrying passengers alongside it.

But citing cost and space constraints, critics of the plan, including groups like Santa Cruz County Greenway, have instead proposed tearing up the tracks and building a wider trail that they say would be cheaper and get more use.

As it is, the new trail will have flashing beacons to help people cross Fair Avenue and Swift Street. And engineers developed unique configurations for other intersections, as well, including at Bay and California streets, where they’ll be reorganizing stop signs and infrastructure to make it easier for bicyclists to turn safely. A sidewalk on Lennox Street will bulb out in one area to route cyclists around a heritage tree.

To supporters of the rail trail, the plans for what is known as Segment 7 are a triumph of creative engineering. But upon closer inspection, they also offer hard evidence that critics have been right about some of the problems the rail trail will face that have been downplayed by train proponents.

For instance, even though Lennox Street’s girthy cypress tree will get protected, construction will require removal of six heritage trees along the route. (There would have been a seventh tree removal, but someone apparently went rogue and cut down a heritage tree on their own—and no one knows who it was. “It wasn’t a permitted removal,” Schneiter says.)

When it comes to the big picture, Manu Koenig, a boardmember for Greenway, says that a train could never possibly offer passengers much bang for their buck, given its estimated cost of up to $176 million and a meager estimated ridership of up to 6,800 daily fares by 2035, according to the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line Rail Transit Feasibility Study.

Koenig has supported building Segment 7, as it’s currently planned, because it’s the fastest way to get a trail that pedestrians and bikers can use, but he didn’t do so without reservations. “Cutting down any trees that you don’t have to is a shame,” he says.

Another issue raised by rail trail critics that’s coming to the fore is one of retaining walls. At the next stop along the line, Schneiter and his fellow civil engineers have almost finished construction drawings for phase 2 of Segment 7, where it winds past Neary Lagoon on its way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. That part of the route is momentarily tied up in a lengthier environmental review process because of federal funding. When crews get started, they’ll need to excavate part of a slope to make room for the trail and build retaining walls to hold up the remainder of the hill.

A wall like that is a minor detail to many transportation enthusiasts. But it’s also exactly the kind of additional cost that Greenway supporters had said that engineers would run into from the beginning. The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Master Plan outlined retaining walls in a few passages that got factored into the estimated $127 million along a couple segments of corridor. But it was not included in all of the areas, and it was not in Segment 7. An analysis by Greenway found that Segment 7 was actually the least constrained part of the corridor, and Koenig believes these issues don’t bode well for the rest of the rail trail as planned, especially if county leaders want to stay anywhere close to budget estimates.

“We’re going to run into a ton of challenges that we haven’t yet,” he says.

Running the Numbers

Considering that an unforeseen retaining wall in the very beginning isn’t a good look for the rail trail plan, I brought up the concern with Mark Mesiti-Miller, a retired civil engineer and proud train lover. “That’s totally valid,” Mesiti-Miller, the chair of the Friends of the Rail Trail, told me.

But he also noted that planners will save $5.3 million on the bridge over the San Lorenzo River just a mile or so farther east, which should make up the cost. A few weeks ago, Mesiti-Miller met me by the old truss bridge at the edge of the Boardwalk to talk about coming changes.

“They saved $5 million!” says Mesiti-Miller, his thick gray hair blowing in a gust of wind. “Last time I checked, $5 million was still a lot of money, so you can do something else with that $5 million. The next segment might [cost] more.”

The master plan had originally called for a brand new bike and pedestrian bridge to launch off the levees and land on the other side of the river, by East Cliff Drive. The bridge would have run parallel to the existing truss bridge, which already has a pedestrian path of its own, but it’s far too narrow. For years, cyclists have wondered if it might be possible to cantilever an extension off to the side of it, making more room for a wider path. After a study deemed such an extension feasible, Schneiter estimated the fix should cost about a half a million dollars, less than 8 percent of the original projection.

Generally speaking, Cory Caletti, rail trail program manager for the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), says that departures from the rail trail master plan should not be seen as an indictment of the plan itself, which she stresses is “a high-level document.”

“So it isn’t meant to be interpreted as detailed construction drawings—where exactly a retaining wall would be needed, how high the wall would be,” she explains.

Be that as it may, it’s safe to say that large-scale government projects are historically no stranger to cost increases or overruns.

A 2014 study from Oxford University’s business school found that when it comes to major infrastructure overhauls, “megaprojects” routinely run way over budget for a number of reasons—planning errors, overly optimistic projections and even “strategic misrepresentation,” wherein planners knowingly lowball their estimates to make their projects look better on paper.

To be clear, the megaprojects covered in the study were billion-dollar undertakings, putting them well beyond the scope of whatever the county decides with the rail corridor, even though the rail trail is a huge project by Santa Cruz County’s standards. But the criteria could certainly apply to a much bigger transportation effort not far away. The original cost estimate for California High-Speed Rail, which is supposed to run through San Jose, was $45 billion 10 years ago.

Current estimates say the project could end up costing more than double that.

Koenig once voted in favor of California High Speed Rail, but he says it was the daunting cost overruns at the state level that gave him second thoughts and also forced him to give the local rail corridor a closer look.

And once he did, he says he didn’t like what he saw.

Facing Complications

Although trail building may have its quirks, Steve Taty says it pales in comparison to the challenges of introducing passenger rail service.

Taty, a retired principal construction inspector for the VTA light rail system in San Jose, signed Greenway’s petition, because he can’t picture passenger rail in Santa Cruz doing anything other than causing a major headache. “I just hang my head, because they have no idea of the complications of it,” Taty says.

Taty, 72, says planners will also have to worry about where to put park-and-rides and how to handle liability claims when someone gets hurt or when a car and a train collide. He predicts that one of the biggest challenges will be how to get riders on the train, as even VTA has suffered troubling decline in ridership over the past couple years.

Mesiti-Miller believes questions like these are important, calling them all “relevant issues to discuss when the time is right.”

“The time to make those decisions is when you actually have a proposal in front of you and you can think about, ‘Where do I want my parking lot? Where do I want my rail station?’” he says. “The rail stations in the feasibility study—they’re just dots on a piece of paper. They’re meaningless. They don’t actually represent anything. Those locations will be decided at some future time with the input of the neighbors, community input. That’s when you need to be thinking about, ‘Oh, so how many cars do you think we will need to park in this park-and-ride lot? Or, should we subsidize Uber rides for our passengers, instead of building parking lots? And can we get enough employers to provide employee shuttles that we don’t actually need parking at all?”

When it comes to building any transportation project, RTC Executive Director George Dondero says unexpected things pop up. Discovering sensitive habitat along the route—plants, animals, underground springs—will all drive up costs, for example.

Dondero is optimistic, though, about engineers’ ability to work within tight constraints, having walked Segment 9, in the Seabright area, with Schneiter and Steve Wiesner, the county’s assistant director of public works. The two civil engineers discussed the route along the way, engineering it out loud as they went.

Schneiter tells me that that portion, heading east from the San Lorenzo River, is “a challenging location.”

“So we’re looking at that,” he says. “We’ll be looking at it more closely pretty soon.”

Update 5/21/2018: This story has been updated to clarify information about a hypothetical commuter train’s projected future ridership.

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