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Santa Cruz Still Doesn’t Know How to Talk About the Rail Trail

People choose which questions to ask after deciding how they feel

Bicyclists ride on a newly opened section of the Coast Rail Trail on the Westside of Santa Cruz. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

I reported a five-part series on the debate over a proposed rail trail corridor in April 2018, when the only logical conclusion was that the caustic discourse wasn’t going to get any better until everyone developed an agreed-upon set of facts. 

And although the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is inching forward with a plan nearly three years later, many public perceptions of the issues around the corridor are stuck in gridlock.

The RTC is now getting ready to hold a public hearing to take community input on the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis on Thursday, Jan. 14, at 9:30am via Zoom. The commission has already signaled that it wants some form of transit—likely a train or a bus—along the bike and pedestrian route, which is now a reality on the Westside. The RTC is not currently pursuing the trail-only route that some anti-train groups, like Greenway and Trail Now, had pushed for.

That sense of direction hasn’t totally calmed the discussion, and the commission now has its first staunchly anti-train member in Supervisor Manu Koenig. Meanwhile, identity politics is driving the whole discussion, with the most emotionally invested Santa Cruz County residents picking a team to identify with—in much the same way political junkies across the country identify as liberal or conservative. Santa Cruz has seen similar phenomena play out between warring factions in fights over housing affordability in Santa Cruz the past two years, although the coalitions in that space are not quite so neat.

When it comes to transportation, many trail-only activists are partial to the bus-rapid transit option, which is not RTC staff’s top recommendation. The recommendation is for a new commuter train. While a proposed bus option has higher projected ridership, staff findings say that the train would use more of the trail, have faster travel times and be more accessible to those with disabilities.

Many of the questions from trail-only activists, however, haven’t changed in the last three years: For instance, will large portions of the trail need to be routed off onto city streets because the corridor isn’t wide enough? Where will the train stops even go? Will Santa Cruz County ever have the political will to pass a sales tax measure? How should the declining ridership of the relatively new SMART train in Sonoma and Marin counties change the calculus here?

The general answer to many such questions—the RTC staff and train supporters will argue—have remained constant as well. It’s too early to know, they explain, and the studies are still working on a higher level of analysis, so it is not the time to get into the nitty-gritty details.

“That’s not where we are right now,” Senior Transportation Planner Ginger Dykaar told me in November. Patience, she said, will be key.

With the RTC ready to hear more community input Thursday, the stated focus will be on identifying a preferred local transit alternative to Santa Cruz County’s most congested routes.

I used to think that the questions activists ask or the way they rationalize the big-picture answers about a given topic helps inform their stance on the relevant policies.

But I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around—that perhaps people decide how they feel about a policy before they even decide how best to engage with the concepts at play.

For information on how to join the Jan. 14 meeting, visit sccrtc.org.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Eric

    January 13, 2021 at 9:51 pm

    Trains are a heavy hammer, a robotic bull you would not want running through the sweet china shop which is Santa Cruz. Running train service will change the Santa Cruz environment, and not for the better. Some sweet places will become quite undesirable. Why would you implement that kind of heavy mass transit a half mile from the ocean? Dystopia.

    And for all that, the freeway traffic will NOT lighten up. It won’t happen. The freeway pipe will always fill to the limit of tolerable capacity. There are plenty of studies going back at least to the 1980s on that.

  2. Lawrence Denis Freitas

    January 13, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    When Covid is over many people will be leaving home for work or school. The fact of the matter is a grade up improvement of the tracks from 1 to 2, all that’s needed, will be way cheaper than adding a bis only lane to the freeway. Also, the rail line goes through to places people either work or recreate. Then there is the Tig-M electric light rail vehicles that do not need a third rail or overhead wires. They more than likely could.be customized to ride on rail and steeets: google images for rail buses to see what they are. Perhaps part of the rail line could be bypassed, so parallel streets could be used: examples are Sumner Road and Portola. Regarding Lice Oak, though, bile riders will continue to do what they do now, which is use East Cliff Drive, so the tracks between 17th and 41st should just be used for rail!

  3. Robyn Marks

    January 13, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    Santa Cruz can’t afford to fix our potholes. Where will the County come up with the money to maintain rails, trestles, etc? Not to mention the misery for those living next to the tracks. I am not anti-train, my father was a career RR worker. Rather I have a realistic idea of the expense involved with maintaining a safe railway.
    Aside from all of that, the tracks don’t go anywhere near most of the employment centers in the county, I believe it will be underused… actually I believe the technical term is “boondoggle”.

  4. Dan Dion

    January 13, 2021 at 11:45 am

    I think the RTC is doing a great job on our Coastal Rail Trail. We love the Westside section and look forward to the upcoming openings. It takes patience to implement large infrastructure projects especially when sales taxes yet to be collected are a significant funding source and the engineering requirements are complex and varied. The RTC has evaluated a myriad of options and focused in on the most important characteristics of each – economics, efficiency, ecology and equity. (the 4 e’s – you can use that). We must keep the rails to ensure we have a coherent trail from Davenport to Watsonville or large swaths of the land will become windfall gains to those with easements and their developers at the expense of all county residents. I don’t think identity politics are at play. I think its a difference of views and the majority of SC County wants rail alongside the trail. Let’s move forward.

  5. Dean Morrow

    January 13, 2021 at 9:18 am

    “Patience will be key?” How many more decades should we be patient while climate change rages and an invaluable transportation corridor remains unused? More are working from home who will not need a train or bus and that will continue to increase. LA case study: from 2013-2018 pre-COVID, LA Metro’s transit ridership declined 19%. Similar patterns occurred in most US cities. LA Metro bus ridership declined 24% from 2013 through 2019. Rail ridership was down 5% even though new rail lines opened. From 2017 to 2019 for every 10 rail riders added to the system, 68 bus riders were lost. Santa Cruz can’t even afford to adequately fund Metro; how in the world does the RTC think we can afford passenger rail?

  6. Don Honda

    January 12, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    Our local RTC is incompetent. Evidence of this is the first 1.3 mile Northern Trail segment came in at over 4 Xs the cost and over project time run. It exhibits poor design, poor execution and dangerous elements to the users. The Smart Train has proven to be a money pit and basically useless as only wealthy patrons can afford the subsidized fares along with low ridership. This is an area with a much higher density population than Santa Cruz. The answer is the BRT, more flexible, higher ridership predictions, much lower cost, and much lower time frame and can use Measure D funds without going to the voters for more money. Remember one of your consultants used the term Liberty as being most important? How simple can it be?

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