Santa Cruz County’s Greenway Initiative Is Neither Green, Nor the Right Way

PUBLISHED MAR 29, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Looking northeast on the Santa Cruz Rail Trail near Bay and Lennox streets.

Looking northeast on the Santa Cruz Rail Trail near Bay and Lennox streets.   Chris Neklason


One of Santa Cruz County’s enduring strengths is its value-driven persistence.

Living next door to the world’s most powerful economic engine, Silicon Valley, requires constant vigilance and action so that we are able to determine our own destiny.

As is the case everywhere, Santa Cruz is unique. We are a former sleepy retirement town that came out of its slumber with the arrival of the University of California Santa Cruz; the adoption of growth management initiatives in Watsonville, Santa Cruz, and in the unincorporated areas; and being the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, with a very robust local small business community that led the post-earthquake recovery.

Now, another pivotal moment has arrived for Santa Cruz County.

A June ballot initiative, Measure D, would kill nearly three decades of work to buy and repair a 32-mile existing rail line from Davenport, through Santa Cruz, all the way to Watsonville. Great progress has been made on this important inter-city rail project.

In 2016, voters in Santa Cruz County approved a balanced ballot measure to allocate revenues from a half-cent sales tax to fund, among other things, two very large projects: the widening of Highway 1 and the development of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor.

Most of the money from the 2016 measure goes to widening Highway 1—but, the passionate, environmentally concerned citizens of Santa Cruz County would never have passed that initiative if it was only about highway widening, and did not contain funding for inter-city rail.

At the time, we had already spent 20 years as a community working on a step-by-step plan to turn the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line into a 32-mile transit corridor. All in all, the community has voted three separate times in favor of the inter-city rail component. Our community successfully lobbied the state and received funding targeted for transit. That is what every coalition-building effort for more than 20 years has been aimed at.

What is this new threat to a balanced transportation future? Measure D-Greenway—the so-called Greenway Initiative. It does not, as its supporters claim, “press pause” on inter-city rail development. They don’t really want voters to hit the ”pause” button—they want you to hit the “kill” button.

The language of the initiative removes all mention of rail with regard to the Santa Cruz Branch line from the General Plan. That document is the legal blueprint guiding all development in the county. It will be nearly impossible, if Measure D-Greenway passes, for the county to pursue the rail alternative.

Measure D-Greenway supports the gauzy notion of “railbanking.” While thousands of miles of rail have been “banked” worldwide, a fraction of one percent have ever been “withdrawn” from the railbank. Making a withdrawal from the railbank would require another countywide vote. That’s a lot of political friction and—by the way—it would be extremely expensive to retrofit torn-up or paved-over rails.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) recently received more than $112 million from the California Transportation Commission (CTC) to continue putting one foot in front of the other on the highway-widening plan. What the RTC hasn’t done is make a single application to the CTC to advance the rail concept—not one step in that direction. And now they are claiming that somehow inter-city rail is too expensive. Their logic is, as a minimum, confusing.

The Measure D-Greenway crowd wants, contrary to the will of voters on three previous occasions, to kill inter-city rail. In multiple jurisdictions in California, in hundreds of jurisdictions in the country, thousands of miles of intercity rail are being developed as commuter routes running quiet, fast electric trains—as a response, among other things, to climate change.

This is not about whether or not we’re going to have a trail in the rail right of way. Everybody is for a trail—the trail is going to be built on that line. It is already being built. What this is about is being fair and keeping promises.

Is it fair for a group of people to show up, 20 years into a public process that created a valuable public resource such as the Santa Cruz Branch Line, and simply take it? Is it fair that the 32-mile right-of-way be converted from transportation corridor into a recreation playground?

It must be said that Measure D-Greenway contains elements of race and class. Greenway supporters have said publically that the folks who commute from Watsonville to Santa Cruz aren’t likely to use the train because they won’t be able to carry lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Such views deny the reality of the thousands of folks who commute from their Pajaro Valley homes to jobs in mid- and north-county and who now support an efficient alternative to expensive cars and gas.

For all of these reasons, this ill-conceived Measure D-Greenway has garnered a unique coalition of opponents, including local chambers of commerce, leading environmental organizations, building trades unions, Democratic committees and clubs, and dozens of community leaders, including council members from north to south.

Santa Cruz County—one of the most progressive and environmentally aware counties in the state of California—cannot be the county that says “Our transit plan is widening freeways. Period. Hard stop.”

Please join me in rejecting this backward and deceptive Measure D-Greenway.

Fred Keeley held public office as a county supervisor, county treasurer and member of the state Assembly. Mr. Keeley currently teaches in the graduate program of Public Administration at San Jose State University, and at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Editor's note: An earlier version stated incorrectly that Sata Cruz's state senator and assembly member had taken a position on the Greenway Initiative. It also said that it would be "illegal" for the County to work toward a rail alternative, and that the county-wide vote required to to do so would involve amending the General Plan.


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