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This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Landmarks, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County’s newsletter.

We’ve been talking to a lot of people about our campaign to build the Rail Trail ASAP – and many of them have concerns based on what they have been hearing about the Rail Trail. The good news is that the Rail Trail is being built ASAP. A full one-quarter of the trail (8 miles) will be built in less than two years – the first segments are in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and along the North Coast. The Land Trust has committed to raising $5 million to match grants for the Watsonville and North Coast segments (and others coming up) and has already raised nearly half of that. A proposed ballot measure in the fall could raise $68 million for the Rail Trail (more than half its $128 million cost), which would make the Rail Trail not just a cool, someday idea, but something we will see mostly built within a few years. The Rail Trail is being built now.

So it is a bit odd when we hear that it can’t be built – mostly, it seems, that some people think the possibility of a train means we can’t have a trail. So, let’s look at what we’ve been hearing and explain why we think we can build the trail now and leave the rail decision to another day.

 “the rail corridor isn’t wide enough for both rail and trail.”
Those making this argument seem to have two things in mind: 1) that the corridor isn’t physically wide enough for both a 12-foot trail and the train and 2) that we need to remove the tracks so we can build a 20-foot wide super-trail.

Firstly, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), which owns the corridor, says that the corridor meets minimum width requirements for 99% of its 32 miles – and thinks there are relatively straightforward engineering solutions for the few narrow spots that exist. The City of Santa Cruz’s designs for the trail from Natural Bridges to the Boardwalk prove it can be done. Most of the trail in the city will be 16 feet wide and the narrowest segments 12 feet wide. You can go deeply into the weeds on this subject, but when you come out, you basically have to ask yourself who do you trust – the engineers and planners who will build the trail, or the amateurs who say the pros are wrong. We’ve gone into the weeds and side with the pros.

The second not-wide-enough argument is that we need a 20-foot super trail to accommodate super-fast bike commuting. A 12-foot trail (the narrowest proposed section) is the width of a lane of freeway – plenty wide for bikes and walkers, even strollers and people walking together. It is the width of trails all over the bike-friendly countries of Europe that are our models. There is simply no evidence that we need a super-wide trail so people can bike commute at high speeds over long distances. How many people are going to spend an hour biking from Watsonville to Santa Cruz every day?

we’ll save $100 million if we just tear up the tracks.”
Certainly tearing up the tracks and giving up on ever having passenger rail service would make building the Rail Trail cheaper. But the $100 million figure being thrown around has simply been made up. You would still need engineering, still need permits, still need to build the trail, and still need to retrofit bridges – all things that make up the vast majority of the $128 million cost of the Rail Trail.

The cost of the Rail Trail sounds like a lot of money because it is a number without context. It is actually the same amount spent by government every year on transportation in our county. If you spread the Rail Trail’s cost over 30 years (which is how you usually think of capital projects), it is just $4 million a year, 3% of annual transportation spending in our county.

we could build the trail in 18 months without the train
In a fantasy world we could build almost anything in 18 months (the Pentagon was built in 16 months). But in the real world, here and now, abandoning the current Rail Trail plan would lead to delays in building the Rail Trail. The current plan (a trail alongside the tracks) is the adopted plan not only of the RTC, but of the County and the three cities it passes through. The first quarter of its 32 miles has been funded by these governments and both federal and state governments. It is established government policy, developed over years with lots of public input. To reverse that policy, all these government bodies would have to hold public hearings, and new cost estimates and engineering plans would have to be developed. It would take time. The experts we talk to think that reversing course and ripping up the tracks could delay the Rail Trail by a decade or more. And there is no guarantee that, after this delay, the result would be any different than the last time we went through this process – when the public and our elected officials decided, “we want to keep the rail option open.”

the train will never work, costs too much, is noisy, etc.”
Maybe. Maybe passenger rail doesn’t make sense and never will. Maybe it will never be worth the cost. And maybe it will make sense one day. The Suntan Special used to bring people from the Bay Area right down to the Boardwalk. It didn’t seem to make sense anymore in the 1950s and the line was abandoned, but don’t we wish we had it now? Maybe we don’t want noisy diesel trains, but maybe we’d like some electric trams.

The transportation ballot measure that may be on the November ballot would provide funds to study various rail alternatives, including quiet light rail. We note that opponents of building the current trail now like to talk about noisy diesel trains, and are opposed to studying the quiet light rail option. We’re not. We’re for trail now and trains maybe, after further study.

Trail and train are separate projects

The trail and the train may share a common corridor, but they are separate projects, with different timelines, costs, and goals. The Rail Trail has already been through a long public process and has been approved by all levels of government. A quarter of it has already been funded and will be completed within two years. Well over half could be funded within a year.

The public process for the train option is still underway, no decisions have been made, and funding and construction is, at best, years away. To delay building the trail now, to forever kill the possibility of rail service, is to waste the opportunity before us to build something that will transform how people get around our county.

Spring-Newsletter-2016-bikechartRight now 9% of work trips in the City of Santa Cruz are made on bicycles. In Davis it is double that, and bike-friendly European cities double Davis. We believe this 32-mile road without cars will dramatically change how people get around our county. We see Santa Cruz reaching Davis levels of bike use, maybe one day approaching those lofty European levels. Why not? And why not seize the opportunity before us to build a trail within a mile of half the county’s population – and 45 schools and 92 parks?

Additional responses to arguments against building the Rail Trail ASAP can be found at

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This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Rail options for the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line continue to expand. This past February the RTC commissioners approved a new trolley service and last Monday I had the opportunity to ride from Santa Cruz to Bonny Doon Beach on the trolley. The RTC senior staff was also taken on a test ride this past Thursday and service is slated to begin later this month.

    In addition, the Golden Gate Railroad Museum (GGRM) held a meeting this past Thursday in Santa Cruz to bring their membership and the general public up to speed on the progress of their move to Santa Cruz. They reiterated their plan to upgrade the rail line to passenger standards so they will be able to run their events out of Santa Cruz. In the meantime, large quantities of track components have been brought into Santa Cruz County by the GGRM and expansion of the track, not removal, will begin later this year.

    Also, the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, the common carrier for the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, has seen a significant increase in revenues for their operation. In response, they recently upgraded the track from Salinas Road all the way to Buena Vista Drive that will also allow for passenger operations. They are also looking at upgrading the rest of the line that will allow for passenger operations from Watsonville to Davenport before year-end.

    Rest assured the option for commuter rail service will remain and use of the tracks for rail operations will expand in the meantime.

  2. Thank you very much for taking the time to clearly respond to these commonly-voiced concerns. I now have a much better grasp of the argument in favor of “staying on track” with the current plan and as a result will feel much more confident promoting it to others.

  3. 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 in 2022.

    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. The proponents of a trail only option will be very disappointed and feel used when they realize they have be intentional misled by Trail Now.

  4. I support the rail and trail. I also would like to see the return of freight operations. Watsonville is getting freight deliveries, why not SC. There are, for example, two concrete plants in the River Street area with truck traffic delivering rock, sand and cement. One rail car takes three trucks off these congested streets. When the wharf is added on to, why not bring the materials in by rail? The city has a storage yard tight next to the tracks. There are more industries that could benefit

  5. I support building of both the rail and trail from Davenport to Watsonville.

    I fully support building the trail along the rail corridor while proceeding with further studies and infrastructure to build the rail for train service on the corridor.

    Bob Morgan

  6. For what it is worth, I would be opposed to a diesel train. But I think an electric light rail is a fabulous idea. With a little bit of imagination and clever design of the cars themselves, the rail could add distinction to our community and blend in with Santa Cruz culture.

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