The Coastal Rail Trail will allow biking, walking and wheelchair access from one end of Santa Cruz County to the other—and forever change local transportation.
by Jessica Lyons Hardcastle
June 4, 2015—Let’s be clear: this is not a multi-million dollar dirt bike path. It’s a brand-new road that will run the length of Santa Cruz County — without cars.
The Coastal Rail Trail is the 32-mile long paved path for biking, walking and wheelchair use that will run alongside the railroad tracks from Davenport to Watsonville. About 50 percent of the county’s population — and 44 schools and 92 parks — are located within 1 mile of the route.
“How long will it take to ride my bike from Capitola to the boardwalk? Fifteen minutes,” says Stephen Slade, deputy director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. “I drove this weekend from Capitola to Seabright and it took us 25 minutes. I live six miles from work and I drive a car every day because I’m not going to ride a bike on Soquel.”
The Land Trust is the project’s lead fundraiser and has also been leading neighborhood walks along sections of the planned trail. The walks, Slade says, make you realize “everything is so close.
“One of the first segments we walked was Watsonville to Manresa Beach. It’s seven miles. On a bike, average bike speed, it’s about a half hour. You talk to all these people in Watsonville who can’t get to the beach easily — well, there you go. And it’s a beautiful seven miles. This project is really opening up the county.”
The Coastal Rail Trail is part of the larger Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network, a 50-mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway from the San Mateo County line in the north to the Monterey County line at Pajaro. The remaining 18 miles include natural surface paths and bike lanes that connect the Coastal Rail Trail — the network’s “spine” — to neighborhoods, schools, parks and coastal access, transit hubs, commercial centers and existing trails. A safety fence will separate the rail trail’s paved path from the existing and future trains that will use the tracks.
And because it’s adjacent to the train tracks, the rail trail is flat, no more than a 2.5 percent grade at any point. This means tens of thousands of school kids and hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists will have a safe, hill-free way to get to school or work, run errands or see the sites without sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic — or risking life and limb pedaling along Highway 1 or through city streets. Local engineers and transportation officials have designed and will eventually build 96 at-grade crossings and 24 new bridges along the route.
And did we mention the scenery? The northernmost segment runs along the coastal bluffs from Wilder Ranch State Park to Laguna Road and will provide future access to the Coast Dairies property. In the south, a segment from Manresa Beach to Watsonville winds between strawberry and Brussels sprouts fields and along the Watsonville Slough — a birder’s paradise.
“I live and breathe this project,” says Cory Caletti, senior transportation planner with the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, the Rail Trail’s lead public agency. “You don’t get to build new roads these days, and this is going to be phenomenal. In a way, we are expanding transportation options three-fold: transit, bike and pedestrian.”
It’s been decades in the making.
To Buy A Rail
Ecology Action is one of the local groups that has been involved since the get-go, most recently through its rail trail fundraising arm, Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT). Now FORT is fundraising, it’s come up with about $150,000, and it’s doing educational outreach to get the rest of the county on board.
“It’s so phenomenal because 60 percent of people who are able and interested in biking won’t get on their bikes on a regular basis because they are just too scared of traffic to ride in traffic,” says Piet Canin, FORT boardmember and vice-president of transportation for Ecology Action. “This provides them with a car-free path. It will really be a game changer for healthy, sustainable transportation.
“Fifty percent of our greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Cruz come from the transportation sector. This will give people a safe, reliable way of reducing their carbon footprint in a substantial way. But in the meantime, Arana Gulch is our example of what the rail trail can be. It shows the people that you put a car-free path for people to walk and bike.”
The rail trail effort started some 20 years ago with a push by Ecology Action and other local groups to purchase the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from Southern Pacific, then Union Pacific, which bought it in 1996. In 2010, the RTC decided to move forward with the purchase of the branch line for $14.2 million. Of that amount, $11 million came from Prop. 116 funds, which designated money for clean air and transportation projects in the state.
It took two years to secure funding and the needed approvals, and in October 2012, the RTC closed escrow on the branch line — and committed to facilitate passenger and freight train service along with a bike and pedestrian trail.
The RTC adopted the trail’s master plan in late 2013 and amended it last February. Transportation officials expect the completed project, which will be built in segments, will cost $127 million. “We are hoping for major portions of the project to be built within the next 10 years,” Caletti says. “Of course, that is funding-dependent.”
To Build A Trail
The commission selected the first three segments for funding in December 2013, backed by $5.3 million in federal Transportation Enhancement program and federal earmarks and appropriations that Congressman Sam Farr secured for the trail network. These include a piece of the trail from Natural Bridges to Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz (about $4 million), Lee Road east to the slough trail connection in Watsonville (about $1 million) and a Live Oak section in Twin Lakes along the beach, from 5th Avenue to 7th Avenue ($200,000).
Additionally, the RTC is considering bringing a sales tax measure to voters in the next presidential election to help fund this and other neighborhood, bike and pedestrian projects. Caletti says a recent poll by the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council found 73 percent of voters would support a 1/2 –cent sales tax to fund local transportation projects.
As far as transportation project go, funding for the rail trail is moving at lightning speed. Assuming RTC does obtain funding for the trail from Wilder State Park to Coast Dairies from a federal lands access grant — the project has already been short-listed for the funding and Caletti says it’s 98 percent a sure thing — 25 percent of the 32-mile trail will have been paid for.
“This is a phenomenal speed for transportation projects,” Caletti says.
Much of this is due to the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Earlier this month, the Land Trust agreed to provide $2.5 million to match the Santa Cruz County Public Works Department’s grant application to build the rail trail through Live Oak. If the grants are successful — the county will find out in the fall — the funds will match a $12 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to build 1.7 miles of trail from the San Lorenzo River to 17th Ave.
The Land Trust previously pledged $3 million to match a federal grant to fund the trail from Wilder Ranch to Coast Dairies and $335,000 for the Watsonville segment. That’s $6 million the Land Trust has committed to match grants to build 10 miles of the trail.
“The Rail Trail captures people’s imagination, and they recognize that this is a transformative project for the county,” says Slade. “It will change how people get around, kids getting to school safely, people getting on their bikes instead of their cars.”
Slade says the project is bigger than the 32-mile paved path. “Why can’t we be like those places in Europe? Why can’t we have off-the-charts bike ridership? It really is infrastructure. I think the rail trail will then spur all these connector routes that will then make them safer. That’s the part that’s transformative: this is just the beginning.”