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.