Santa Cruz County's Fight Over Sustainable Transportation

Steps away from a busy two-lane road in Santa Cruz is a gravel thoroughfare flanked by a wall of greenery on either side. It’s so peaceful inside the shaded canopy of trees that it’s easy to forget the steady line of cars driving up and down the road no more than 100 yards away. 

“Oh yay,” says Jean Brocklebank, “a swallow,” as she points up into the trees. The bird’s high-pitched chirps are easy to hear over the gentle crunch of gravel underfoot. This peaceful path bisecting 7th Avenue and several more of the busiest roads in Santa Cruz is the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. Although not the intention, the 150-year-old rail corridor has become a de facto wildlife corridor since 2017, when trains stopped running on it, says Brocklebank, an environmental activist and Santa Cruz resident since 1973. 

As urban wildlife stakes its claim on the green corridor running through town, the human residents of the county have spent the past two decades arguing over what to do with this 32-mile stretch of train tracks. Should they build a commuter train with a pedestrian and cycling trail next to it? Or nix the train and build a wider, safer trail that separates pedestrians from cyclists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and the like? Either seem like good, environmentally friendly uses for the corridor, and both options have been executed with success in other parts of the state and country. But more than a decade after purchasing the railway, Santa Cruz County still doesn’t have a commuter train and has only about a mile of the trail built. The county’s snail pace has given many residents time and reason to consider alternative options for the corridor — such as removing the tracks altogether. 

In June, the entire county had the chance to weigh in by voting on Measure D, also called the Greenway Initiative, which asked if the county should do just that and focus on building an extra-wide, fully paved trail only. The initiative proposed protecting the trail-only area for future rail use through railbanking — a legal designation that preserves the existing land easements granted for rail use that would otherwise disappear if there were no intention to have rail return to the corridor. The measure earned a spot on the ballot thanks to efforts by Santa Cruz County Greenway, a non-profit group led by Bud Colligan, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who earned much of his wealth through early leadership positions and investments in tech companies in Silicon Valley. Greenway was supported by many big names in environmentalism, including Monterey Bay Aquarium director Julie Packard, National Geographic photographer Franz Lanting, and UCSC Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences Gary Griggs.  

This seemingly innocent question ignited one of the most vitriolic campaigns in the county’s history. “I’m amazed how contentious this got to be,” says Bruce Sawhill, a board member for the non-profit group Friends of the Rail and Trail and supporter of the No on D campaign. “I was worried that it might actually escalate into physical violence.”

The No on D campaign was launched by the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail and Trail, a non-profit organization advocating for turning the entire 32 miles of tracks into an electric rail transit system flanked on one side by a paved hiking and biking trail. Similar to Greenway, the No on D group was led by accomplished, prosperous members of the county, primarily Mark Mesiti-Miller, a retired engineer, and Melani Clark, the owner of Roaring Camp, a recreational tourist train located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many big organizations in environmentalism also supported the campaign, including the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Ecology Action, and the Sierra Club. (Even former governor Jerry Brown released a statement in support of the campaign.) The No on D campaign argued that a rail-trail combo “increases choice, reduces environmental impact, and supports a vital economy,” according to their website. In other words, the same promise as Greenway, except with a trail and a train. 

The enormous amount of effort put into the campaigns for and against Measure D and the intense combativeness surrounding the issue suggested the results of the vote hinged on a small margin of separation. But that didn’t turn out to be the case at all: No on D won in a landslide with an astounding 53,342 votes, or about 73 percent, compared with 20,616 votes for Yes on D, or about 27 percent. Why voters got so riled up over an issue they were actually united on is still unclear, but campaign leaders suspect misinformation, confusion, emotional attachment to the idea of a train, and the generally contentious political climate in the country may have all contributed to what turned out to be the most divisive issue in the otherwise incredibly united county of Santa Cruz. 

Campaign signs for “No on D” line a road. (Photo by Kimberly Hickok)

Adding to the wealth of misleading and speculative information confusing voters was the effect on Roaring Camp, a beloved county institution. If the corridor were railbanked, the Felton Branch Line, which Roaring Camp relies on, could be cut off from the national railway network in perpetuity — which Clark saw as damning for her business. In multiple passionate letters and online ad campaigns, Clark urged voters to vote against Measure D to “Save Roaring Camp!” In a virtual debate hosted by local news agency Lookout, Clark told voters, “Passage of Measure D unequivocally threatens Roaring Camp’s future.” The message was effective. “I think at least a third, maybe half, of No on D votes were [because of] Roaring Camp,” says Brocklebank, who strongly supported Measure D.

Ultimately, the vote was only gauging public opinion, with no guaranteed policy implications. The decision on how to move forward falls solely with the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), the government agency overseeing the management of the rail corridor. The commission is governed by 12 board members from the area’s city councils and county board of supervisors and is led by an appointed, nonpartisan Executive Director. 

In 2012, the RTC purchased the Santa Cruz Branch Railway from Union Pacific, which retained the right to operate freight service until the RTC passed those rights over to the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway, owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings, a major railroad company. When the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway couldn’t keep up their end of the agreement, the RTC switched freight operators again to Progressive Rail in 2018. As soon as it claimed ownership, the RTC began trying to figure out how to implement passenger service on the railway to alleviate traffic and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But that plan is barely chugging along. 

In 2015, the RTC asked a team of consultants led by transportation engineering firm Fehr & Peers in San Jose to complete the Santa Cruz County Rail Transit Feasibility Study. The study estimated that anywhere from 1,300 to 6,800 people would board the train daily, depending on factors such as when the train would run, the number of stops on the line, and how far across the county it traveled. The report estimated the most valuable and efficient train route would be the 8 miles between Santa Cruz and the neighboring village of Aptos, followed by a 20-mile route between Santa Cruz and Watsonville — the two cities with the highest population densities in the county.   

Having identified that rail transit had the potential of benefitting the county, the RTC next hired Bay Area planning and engineering consulting company Kimley Horn to execute the Unified Corridor Investment Study. Kimley Horn analyzed various scenarios of building a trail next to the commuter railway, widening the highway, and increasing bus transit service. Increasing transit through added bus lanes, more bus routes, and an electric, no-emissions commuter train, is estimated to decrease the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 29 metric tons per day by 2035, which is a maximum decrease of about 1.5 percent compared to present-day estimates. The report estimated that a trail-only option, on the other hand, would actually increase GHG emissions by 26 metric tons per day, or about 1 percent, because of the assumption that more cars would use a newly constructed HOV lane on Hwy 1, which doesn’t currently exist. 

Want even more stories about Bay Area nature? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Following the results of the UCS report, the RTC recommended that the county pursue a rail and trail plan, but cautioned that the rail option may be difficult to pull off because of existing easements along the railway. The UCS report suggested that the RTC pursue railbanking, but according to the RTC, no railbanked corridors that have been paved over have ever reverted back to a train track. This precedent is why the No on D camp is against railbanking, and instead wants the RTC to push forward with railway operation quickly, so as not to lose railway easements should the current operator — Progressive Rail — pull out of their contract, effectively abandoning the railway. In other words, they fear that if Santa Cruz doesn’t get a rail now, it likely never will. 

By the end of 2020, the RTC had completed construction of 1.2 miles of the pedestrian and cycling trail plus a 340-foot bridge over the San Lorenzo River. The agency has plans this summer to break ground on a year-long construction project to build another stretch of trail less than a mile long. Construction of the rail line, on the other hand, isn’t expected to begin anytime in the near future — if it does at all. In a 6-to-6 vote in April of 2021, RTC board members effectively rejected the proposed business plan for the design, construction, and operation of an electric passenger railway, sending RTC staff back to the drawing board. 

“Big projects that have impacts of this nature tend to take a long time,” says Guy Preston, the Executive Director of the RTC. This is especially true in politically active communities like Santa Cruz, he says, where debates such as this one — no matter how valid — halt any progress until the issue is settled. But for now, Preston says, “if additional rail planning is the message that we’re receiving from the voters, then the direction should be to move forward with the additional engineering and environmental studies that would be needed to deliver a Rail Transit Project.”

In October of 2021, around 2,100 residents got a taste of what riding an electric commuter train around town would feel like. Barry Scott, a Santa Cruz resident and the State Program Director for The NEED Project, a non-profit energy education organization, helped bring a zero-emissions streetcar to Santa Cruz County as part of a seven-day demonstration called Coast Futura. “A hydrogen-powered, battery-electric streetcar was running on the Boardwalk,” Scott says. “That was huge.” He says it was exciting to be able to show residents what an electric commuter train would look, feel, and sound like, and he was disappointed the novel demonstration didn’t get more publicity. “It didn’t get nearly the news coverage it should have gotten, considering how remarkable it was,” he says. 

Despite the occasional deceptive campaigning surrounding Measure D, environmentalists on both sides of the issue share the same ultimate goal: They want to make the best choice for the planet and the community. That significant commonality is perhaps why no one expected the intense fervor with which people argued over the measure. 

Being able to argue over two options for environmentally friendly transportation solutions is “sort of a luxury we have,” says Dr. Gary Griggs, UCSC Distinguished Professor of Earth Science and a supporter of the Greenway Initiative. In several parts of the Bay Area, and especially in Santa Cruz, “everybody is more progressive than everybody else,” he says. For many voters, Griggs thinks Measure D was a “fundamental thing” — people don’t want to feel like they’ve lost the option for a train, he says, so they voted Greenway down. “I think the sad thing is, the Regional Transportation Commission has had in their power to do something for a long time, and we still don’t have a trail,” Griggs says. “I question whether this [vote] will really change anything for the next 10 or 20 or 30 years.” 

The rail trail traces the coastline. (Photo by Michael Lewis)

Others think the vote was about more than a train. “I think that the ultimate battle is not about the rail line at all,” says Sawhill. “I think that there are people in the county whose real goal is to widen Highway One. Because if you remove the railway, then you could say, well, there isn’t really any viable alternative for widening Highway One, so we’ve got to do it.” Sawhill thinks people who support widening the highway believe it would create more movement of people in and out of the area and therefore increase commerce because it would be convenient for people to shop and do business in the area.

“It’s hard to say exactly why different people may have voted yes or no on the measure,” Preston says. The measure would have required the county to amend its General Plan, which currently directs the RTC to move forward with planning a commuter rail line, so he suspects some voters may have been uncomfortable with the idea of changing the General Plan. Despite the resounding opposition to Measure D, Preston thinks the debate over the rail corridor is far from over in the politically active and environmentally progressive communities of Santa Cruz County. “People want to see the [environmental impact report] results themselves and use those to help guide the decision making. So it’s likely it’ll continue to be debated.” Preston expects results from the first environmental impact assessment for the trail to be available for the public to view by next spring, but the environmental impact report for the rail could take several more years, he says.

“I think our problem in our county is that people didn’t spend a lot of time talking to each other, and don’t understand each other and think ill of the other person’s motivations,” says Rick Longinotti, co-chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation and supporter of a trail with rail plan. “That’s the big takeaway — we failed on this one to communicate with each other and try to reach an agreement. And for me, that’s the most disturbing lesson of this episode,” he says. “If we can’t figure out how to come together as a community, our environment will go to hell in a handbasket.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.