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Trail Nix?

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Rail Trail opponents want to scrap the future option for a train in Santa Cruz County. But Trail Now's efforts could stymie their beloved trail too.

by Jessica Lyons Hardcastle

March 23, 2016—Campaign season is in full swing.

No, we’re not talking about the presidential race. We’re talking about the effort to build a multi-use trail with possible future rail service that runs the length of Santa Cruz County. And like any campaign, it has two sides fighting to win constituents’ hearts, minds and hard-earned cash.

Candidate Rail and Trail is on one side of the debate. This candidate has spent two decades working to make the 32-mile paved Coastal Rail Trail a reality. It’s getting really, really close.

This candidate conducted numerous studies and sought massive amounts of public input. It negotiated with the railroads, finally purchasing the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) in 2012. It successfully got five local elected bodies — Santa Cruz City Council, Capitola City Council, Watsonville City Council, Santa Cruz County Supervisors and Santa Cruz METRO board of directors, as well as the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission — to sign off on the trail’s master plan and then worked with the feds, the state and local cities to secure millions of dollars to build it. Millions more have been raised to date from the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and Ecology Action’s rail trail fundraising arm, Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT). This candidate has received endorsements from a range of organizations, including the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, which rarely line up on the same side of local issues.

Read about the history of the Coastal Rail Trail

More than 25 percent of the length of the rail-with-trail project (8 miles) has been funded and is currently in the design phase. These sections of the paved trail — the city of Santa Cruz section between Natural Bridges and the Wharf, as well as sections in the North Coast and city of Watsonville — are expected to be complete by 2017 or 2018.

The other candidate — Candidate Trail Now— is lobbying for a trail-only option. It doesn’t want rail included. Like some presidential hopefuls, this candidate earnestly believes its talking points: the Rail Trail plan will see 60 noisy, dirty diesel trains running the length of the county daily; the trail isn’t wide enough or safe enough for bikes, pedestrians and a train; building a trail without rail will be easier and cheaper for the community and can be completed in two years.

The problem with Candidate Trail Now’s platform: factually speaking, it has some weak planks.

“The notion that you can rip up years of planning and the tracks and build another trail by 2018 is a fantasy,” says Stephen Slade, deputy director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the project’s lead fundraiser (full disclosure: the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is a Hilltromper sponsor). “It ignores the real-world process you have to go through to reverse all this planning and public process that has happened. And you can go through that whole process, and there is no reason to suppose there would be a different outcome than the first time we went through the public process and found people want at least the option to have rail transportation in the future.

“The irony is that the trail is being built now,” Slade continues. “The people who are using the name Trail Now are basically Trail Delay. Because that’s what would happen.”

Read trail-only supporter Bud Colligan's guest commentary.


Unhappy Trails

Trail Now is the grassroots group that opposes the rail part of the project. Brian Peoples, who founded the group, has a background in engineering; he founded a van-pool company called Buspool.org. This is a guy who cares a lot about transportation. He advocates for a 20-foot-wide trail for pedestrians and cyclists, as opposed to the 12-foot trail currently under development.

“I live in Aptos,” Peoples says. “I’ve always wanted to be able to let my kids ride their bikes to Capitola. Of course they can’t ride on Soquel, but if they could ride down to the trestle and get all the way over to Capitola. And I knew one day there would be a bike path.”

A bike path — but not with a train running alongside it.

“Studies have shows a train is not economically viable,” Peoples says. “I met with [former county supervisor] Ellen Pirie and she said, ‘Hey, a train doesn’t make sense.’”

Watch the Trail Now interview with Ellen Pirie

Peoples says it would be easy for RTC to abandon the trail-with-rail plan and change course, and that his plan would cost $30 million to $40 million—significantly less than the Rail Trail price tag of $127 million.

“And that includes paying the state back [$11 million came from Prop. 116 funds, which designated money for clean air and transportation projects in the state], and buying the train company out of the contract to get them to abandon the tracks,” Peoples says. “Remove the tracks in 2016, and you can instantly start using it as a gravel trail, which will be an ideal state for a world-class trail by 2018.”

When asked about the feasibility of Trail Now’s timeline, Santa Cruz Councilmember Don Lane, who chairs the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, says: “No, I don’t think it’s possible.”

The RTC is the Rail Trail’s lead public agency. The plan for a paved trail with rail has been 20 years in the making. “We have the state and federal regulators working on this,” Lane says. “There are all these other parties involved that, if we were to change direction, we would have to revisit. But the most important point is there’s also a community discussion around this. We have this corridor the community purchased. … We may not know exactly how we will use the tracks this year or next, but if we tear up those tracks, we lose the opportunity for a very significant transportation project, and we just can’t do that. We can’t close out our options.”

'Let's Use It Today'

“Our biggest argument,” Peoples says, “is let’s use it today. The tracks are sitting there. They are not being used. Even if they were to pull the tracks out and make it into a gravel trail. We want to use it now.”

Initially, a trail is what is going to be built. The rail transit service hasn’t been funded yet. So when the first paved trail segments are completed two years from now, they will be trail only. The train is a future possibility.

“The trail is happening now,” says Cory Caletti, RTC senior transportation planner. “Based on broad community input, the RTC purchased the rail corridor in order to hold it open as a future option to relieve traffic congestion, provide transportation options for our community and create a bicycle and pedestrian trail.”

Peoples says Trail Now hasn’t done any fundraising for its trail-only vision. So where would that $40 million come from?

“There’s already existing money,” Peoples says. “We think the Land Trust is doing the right thing in terms of raising money. I’m pretty sure their requirements for using that money doesn’t require a train track next to it.”

Fundraising doesn’t work like that, Slade says. Asked if the Land Trust will hand over the $5 million it’s committed to raising for the rail trail to build Trail Now’s trail-only vision, Slade responds, “We couldn’t do that. We have raised money to build the rail trail according to the current plan, which is a rail alongside the tracks. So our money is not available for their fantasy.

“The donors have given it for one thing — the rail trail — and you can’t just take donor money and give it to something else.”

Powerful players are involved with this issue. Local venture capitalist and philanthropist Bud Colligan opposes the Rail Trail plan because he prefers a trail-only solution. "I am not on the board of Trail Now but am certainly sympathetic to its goal of creating a bike and pedestrian centered community with a world class trail as its backbone." he says. Colligan says he and Driscoll's CEO Miles Reiter have commissioned a study "to provide a vision of what a trail-only strategy would be."


Trail of Fears

Peoples says RTC and FORT are not being truthful with several of their claims. These include: the cost, how long it will take to build, the types of trains and how frequently they will run, and how much taxpayers will subsidize the future trains. Trail Now also says the train tracks are not located close to any major destinations in Santa Cruz County, namely employment centers. (The tracks lie within a half-mile of half the county’s population, as well as 45 schools and 92 parks.)

The sufficiency of the trail’s width is one hot topic. In a testy email exchange posted on the Land Trust’s website between Peoples and RTC Executive Director George Dondero, Peoples writes: “We believe RTC Staff is being disingenuous in telling the public the corridor is 99 percent wide enough for train and trail and illustrating it with a GIS Map.”

Dondero replies that these maps are for “planning purposes only” and writes, “yes, engineering challenges exist and detailed solutions will be determined when segments are funded. Many of those engineering challenges have been identified in the MBSST Master Plan.”

In an interview with Hilltromper about the engineering challenges, Dondero says: “We’re lucky to have hired some of the best people in the business, and they haven’t encountered an engineering problem they can’t solve yet.” He’s talking about RRM Design Group, a San Luis Obispo-based architecture, engineering and surveying firm that designed the Arana Gulch multi-use trail, prepared the MBSST Master Plan and is now designing the Santa Cruz segment of the trail. RRM Design Group also designed segments of San Luis Obispo’s rail and bicycle trail project.

The specter of a loud, smelly diesel locomotive making 60 trips through the county each day is a major rallying point for many Trail Now constituents. That’s one figure cited in the RTC’s rail feasibility study.

But a feasibility study is not a plan. As RTC spokeswoman Karena Pushnik explains it, a feasibility study’s role is to provide one sampling of scenarios, out of the many available, to start the discussion. “It’s intended to introduce some ideas, some concepts, get the community talking,” says Pushnik. “Later, when doing environmental impacts, that’s when you really make decisions about train types and frequency.” (On 3/24 this paragraph was changed; it now says "one sampling of scenarios" instead of "one sample scenario.")

Caletti, the RTC senior planner, says there are no actual plans for a train.

“In fact, no decision has been made about whether or not to start rail transit service in any form,” Caletti says. “And as a result, no decisions have been made regarding service type, train type, frequency or cost.

“The RTC is pursuing smart planning by seeking to hold rail open as a future option.”

Because once the railroad tracks are removed, the tracks — and the potential for a future light-rail train — are gone for good.


Room for Everyone

When asked about Trail Now’s charge that the rail trail won’t be wide — or safe — enough for bikes and trains, Amelia Conlen, FORT boardmember and director of Bike Santa Cruz County, says a 12-foot-wide bike trail “is very workable.”

“I lived near the Burke Gilman rail trail in Seattle when I was in college, and used it frequently,” Conlen says. “This trail is about 12 feet wide and a popular commuting route, and everyone finds a way to coexist. Bike commuters who are riding fast ring their bells when approaching pedestrians, who then move to the side. Pedestrians, moms with strollers, and people walking dogs know that they are sharing the road with cyclists, and vice versa, and everyone works around each other to share the trail. To me, a 12-foot trail is very workable.”

Bike Santa Cruz County has endorsed the rail trail. So has Ecology Action, which puts on a variety of cycling programs, including Bike to Work Day.

The train piece of the project “doesn’t make the trail unsafe and less useful as a commuter path and a place for young kids to ride their bikes to school and be safe away from car traffic,” says Piet Canin, FORT boardmember and vice-president of transportation for Ecology Action. “It meets those needs. It gives you other options than getting in your car.”

“It’s very important to put this plan into the larger context,” Conlen says. “Santa Cruz traffic is bad, we’re trying to encourage alternative to cars, we can’t widen Highway 1 indefinitely. Really, the only other option left is to encourage alternatives, one of which is bike infrastructure, and the other is passenger rail.”


Ballot Dance

Trail Now supports widening Highway 1, which Peoples says is more practical. “Rather than spending all that money on the train that won’t even really reduce traffic on Highway 1, you can divert that money for bus rapid transit and Highway 1 improvements, which are more effective,” he says.

Something the group doesn’t support, however, is a proposed ballot measure that would fund a variety of transportation projects in the county. The Transportation Improvement Plan includes $68 million for rail trail construction and maintenance. If it’s on the ballot and if it’s approved by voters in November, the 30-year, half-cent sales tax would raise $450 million and also provide some $63 million for rail corridor preservation and maintenance, in addition to local street repair and a wildlife crossing under Highway 17. Included in the plan is a $113 million category to fund three auxiliary lanes on Highway 1, two bike- and pedestrian-only bridges and a Highway 17 safety program to cut down on accidents.

RTC has approved the transportation plan, and it has been endorsed by the Santa Cruz County Business Council, Ecology Action, FORT and other local organizations. Colligan, too, supports the measure despite his opposition to the Rail Trail.

Trail Now, which recently registered as a political action committee with the state, opposes the proposed transportation measure.

Peoples says this is based on the sales tax’s expenditure plan, which includes money for the rail trail. “We are hopeful that the expenditure plan is adjusted by the SCCRTC to better align to Trail Now’s goal of using the rail corridor, which was purchased with taxpayer funds for improved mobility across the county, to build a pedestrian and bike trail ASAP,” Peoples said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working with the SCCRTC on an expenditure plan that benefits our community.”

Slade says the proposed ballot initiative would be a major step toward completing the rail trail. Losing the $68 million, on the other hand, would be a huge setback.

“If the measure, as currently proposed, fails, it will mean that the rail trail loses $68 million of local funding — half its total cost,” Slade says. “Since many federal grants require significant local match, it would also mean that there would be fewer grants to fund the project. The net result would be major delays in getting the trail built ASAP, a tragic loss when we are making so much progress so quickly.

“We have the opportunity now to get the bulk of the rail trail built far faster than anyone expected just a couple of years ago. If Trail Now opposes this measure, perhaps they should change their name to Trail Someday Maybe.”

The City of Watsonville will host an open house on the Rail Trail segment running through Watsonville on Monday, March 28, 5-6:30pm at the Civic Center, 275 Main St, Community Room B.

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The original RTC survey questions had a significant bias toward rail and is not representative of a wider sentiment. A 12' wide trail (6' wide both directions) is not realistic, especially with the multitude of new commuting types of mobility coming to the market every year, e.g. pedal assist bike technology for one. The required setbacks for the train, removal of trees and vegetation, cyclone fence separating the two will degrade the trail experience - which will be the centerpiece for locals and eco-tourists. Trains running through the neighborhoods - however many times a day - will negatively impact residents and cross traffic. I've been trying to be open to the rail and trail, but conclude that the benefits of a wider, serene, multi-use trail would better serve our health, environment and community.

 

A multi-use corridor benefits the most people because it helps people in different ways, Elderly, handicapped and those who cannot ride a bike will not benefit from trail only. Locals in Santa Cruz County need to look past their front door and realize they are part of a much larger region. Santa Cruz has always been seen as a faction of the San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland/Sonoma/Marin catchment area. The below map illustrates this fully.

 

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Speaking only to bratman's trail width comment:. Santa Cruz has been successfully running a several decades long experiment in multiple use paths.

We call it "West Cliff Drive". People, people with dogs, people with surfboards, bikes, bikes and dogs, bikes and surfboards, Segways and, while walking West Cliff just today, a family on powered skateboards.

A 12 foot wide trail is realistic and is not by itself a reasonable argument against the RTC proposal.

 

Exactly. You will noticed that there is no group screaming for the "Train-only" option. Most pro-train advocates (passenger, freight, heritage or otherwise) are rational folks without xenophobic tendencies and are fine with sharing the corridor with a parallel trail. Not the TRAIL NOW group. They want their trail at the expense of the existing viable railroad. The selfish, narcissistic behavior exhibited by Peoples and his privileged white NIMBY cohorts is insulting. It is to the credit of SCCRTC, the Land Trust and other government entities that they continue to push forward by maximizing the corridors assets.

 

What we needed 15 years ago is a true visionary and strong negotiator who would have walked into the negotiating table and told the Southern Pacific Co. that their tracks were worthless, and needed too many repairs that they will not pay for. They could add that they would want the land to build a gravel path, and threaten to retain a good lawyer for possible eminent domain purchase. Remember the scene in "Ghostbusters" when the Bill Murray character is negotiating a purchase of the building and saying all the repairs it will needed, and here comes the Dan Akyroyd character, down a fireman's pole, saying, "were this place is great" etc. The purchase of this right away went into the hands of local and State politicians like the Dan Akyroyd character, and they actually believe they did a great thing. Now, I can understand if the local politicians were smart and the State was unqualified idiots. They would do anything to make the deal. Both sides are full unqualified, weak negotiators, who made something quite simple- into a debacle. Numerous useless tracks have been turned into priceless bike paths. Of course, most people are going to believe the propaganda that they need to build both and the State won’t agree to getting rid of the tracks. What they do not know is exactly what it is going to look like, and the cost. What is proposed is like a two lane highway with a large median. By saying that we worked so hard for this, and we cannot throw away all the planning, meetings, and studies we did- is basically saying that their feelings would be really hurt if you tore up are tracks. Aww, we feel so sorry for you. Did it ever occur to you that you get an “F” for this complete debacle, and need to resign? It will be the greatest Boondoggle if you let these mental midgets continue. Bicyclists and pedestrians will see near empty trains going by, and then reality will set in when the 14 million costs every year comes in. As many know, I developed a plan putting recycled water lines in the corridor to solve the water shortage and saltwater intrusion problems, and end pollution into the Bay. You cannot put these lines near a train, because they could blow out causing a catastrophic derailment. Stephen Slade is truly wasting the public's money. The bike path over removed tracks is under 25 million, so 127 million -25 million= 102 million towards either HWY one, or many miles of more bike paths and trails around the county. Everyone needs to get informed of the priceless benefits, including the donors to the Land Trust, and when this groundswell takes hold- the Magnificent Bike Path over removed tracks will be built, and we will see a lot of resignations and firing of people who created this debacle and continue the propaganda.

 

"Everyone needs to get informed of the priceless benefits, including the donors to the Land Trust, and when this groundswell takes hold- the Magnificent Bike Path over removed tracks will be built, and we will see a lot of resignations and firing of people who created this debacle and continue the propaganda." Well, not really but your version of utopia is humorous to say the least, disingenuous at best. Rails with trails is a growing movement and traffic is California is the worst in North America. There is a reason why local governments partner with CalTrans and other transportation agencies to utilize existing rail lines. They are seen now as a major yet sensible tool used to battle the auto traffic catastrophe that has severely damaged the quality of life in many American towns. The days of happy motoring are over.

Next time Peoples and Smallman tell their minions that "we can't have slow, smelly, old trains", ask them to text you about it while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

 

Please read the SCRTC feasibility study + FAQ on their website. They report the Train will DO NOTHING to relieve HWY one congestion. So, are you going to listen to Buffalo Bagels, a coward who wants to hide in anonymity? Or someone not afraid to disclose information with 25 years of heavy construction experience to back his opinion?

 

Bill, congestion is chronic and cannot be relieved. There is one form of relief, however, and that is to not drive at all. The purpose of rail transit is to provide an alternative to motor vehicles to those who can not or chose not to drive. We have thousands of such citizens, with more on the way. Rail will serve students, tourists, commuters, shoppers, the elderly and disabled, and more. All this and the highway is still there for those who must drive. The RTC and business council and chamber, et. al. demonstrate wisdom and vision in their support of future rail transit. And, parts of the trail will be in use in under two years! Let's not go backward!

 

Can discussion about the various implementations of the rail trail be kept civil and free of derogatory language and insults, please? "mental midgets" "idiots" "minions" etc.

 

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Ms. Hardcastle captured the essence of the issue at hand in this one statement: "the problem with Candidate Trail Now’s platform: factually speaking, it has some weak planks." Peoples is one of the greatest purveyors of fiction in Santa Cruz county. He banks on the hope that most of his supporters will take everything he spews at face value without actually performing any research. Conjecture like "I’m pretty sure their requirements for using that money doesn’t require a train track next to it" are laced with emotion. At this point, FAIL NOW is nothing more than an obstructionist group slowing the process down. Should they continue with their classist actions, they will be at risk for losing funding for their precious trail. Then no one wins, which is exactly what Peoples wants: the nuclear option. "If we can't have it as trail-only, then no one can have it."

 

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The proponents of a trail only option continue to ignore the fact that the tracks can’t be removed. The Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway (SC&MB) is the common carrier and owns the freight easement along the entire length of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. Only the common carrier may abandon the rail line so the track can be removed and the rail corridor railbanked. The RTC gave up that right when they designated the SC&MB as the common carrier. The SC&MB has 7 years left on its 10-year contract with the RTC and they told me they intend to fulfill the remainder of the contact acting as the common carrier for the branch line. They also added they would like to renew their contract with the RTC when it comes up for renewal.

Until such time as Iowa Pacific is ready to leave the line, any discussion of abandonment for the rail line and removal of the tracks should be considered pure fantasy. In the meantime, large quantities of track components have been brought into Santa Cruz County and expansion of the track, not removal, will begin in 2016. In the past month a significant portion of the branch line has be upgraded by the SC&MB, which will permit passenger operations.

Passenger rail service is still being explored by the RTC and it will be years until a final conclusion is reached, but freight service and recreational rail service for the entire branch line has already been approved and is here to stay.

 

Our current plan for a world class rail trail is the result of years of research and design, input from several stakeholders and community partners, and thoughtful attention to serving the greatest number of potential users in the most effective ways.
In contrast, the last minute attempt to start over has virtually no support and little chance of happening. In fact, the political action committee, Trail Now, threatens to kill the trail project altogether by defeating the transportation tax measure.
Here's a handy comparison between the two approaches, the current plan and Trail Now's scheme.

 

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