The Rail Trail is a 32-mile bike and pedestrian trail running alongside the railroad tracks from Davenport to Watsonville. The “Rail” in the Rail Trail refers to the corridor itself and does not refer to a passenger rail service that utilizes the rail line.
The rail corridor is owned by the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). The Master Plan for the Rail Trail was developed through a three-year public process and adopted by the RTC in 2013. The County of Santa Cruz and the cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and Capitola have adopted the Rail Trail Master Plan.
The trail is within one mile of 92 parks, 45 schools and half the county’s population – and can transform how people get around the county. Currently 9% of trips in the City of Santa Cruz are by bicycle, compared to 20% in Davis, and 40% in some European cities. Studies have repeatedly shown that building safe bike paths dramatically increases bicycle use.
The Land Trust has been an advocate of building the trail “as fast as possible” since 2013. The Land Trust partnered early with RTC to provide local match for competitive grants that speed construction of the bike and pedestrian trail. This partnership was a natural outgrowth of our commitment to increasing access to nature, especially to Land Trust properties near the trail (Antonelli Pond, Watsonville Slough Farm, and San Vicente Redwoods). So far, the Land Trust has committed $5.9 million in funds to match grants to build the trail in Watsonville, along North Coast, from Wilder Ranch State Park to Davenport, and the segment from the San Lorenzo River to 17th Avenue.
The first segment of the bike and pedestrian trail, in Santa Cruz, will be open in 2018, followed by the other segments listed above. Segments are being built as funding becomes available. Already $25 million in funds have been allocated to engineer and/or construct 13 miles of the 32-mile trail. Measure D provides another $85 million for the trail – which means most of the funding is in place for the Rail Trail. RTC estimates almost all of the trail could be completed within ten years.
No decisions have been made on rail service or on what type of rail service would make sense for our county. RTC has initiated a two-year public process to look at Highway 1, Soquel Drive and the rail corridor to evaluate options and develop plans to address the transportation problems of the county. It’s called the Unified Corridor Study (UCS). Thus a decision on passenger rail service is not expected until the Unified Corridor Study is completed and, if RTC decides to pursue rail service, it would take a decade or more to develop. More about the UCS process here.
Actually, the RTC staff projects it would take longer. That is because the current Rail Trail plan has already been approved by all levels of government, has approved environmental documents, and work on 13 miles of the trail is underway. These approvals mean the Rail Trail can be built as soon as funding is available. To start over means undoing and redoing years of work and getting various government agency approvals related to the rail use of the corridor – a 13-step process that RTC calculates would take at least eight years. That 8-year process would begin at least two years from now when the Unified Corridor Study is complete. In other words, the county could have almost all of the Rail Trail built in the next ten years – or, by starting over on a trail only approach, construction could be delayed a decade.
The Land Trust’s mission is to protect, care for, and connect people to the lands that make this area special. The Land Trust takes no position on potential rail service and does not make transportation decisions, but the Land Trust supports the Rail Trail Master Plan adopted by RTC, the County of Santa Cruz, and the cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Watsonville. This plan preserves the option of rail service as RTC evaluates viable solutions to the county’s transportation challenges.
The Rail Trail will be at least 12 feet wide (and 16 feet in many places), which is the width of a lane of freeway. RTC has studied the right-of-way maps and has identified just a third of a mile (1% of the 32-mile trail) that falls below the absolute minimum they need for both trail and rail. And they’ve identified solutions to solve the problems in those few areas.
The Land Trust has raised funds to build the Rail Trail as approved by the RTC – and those funds cannot be spent on another project without the consent of the donors of those funds.