Why I Support the Santa Cruz Rail Trail and Oppose the Greenway Initiative

Some things you should know before voting on Tuesday, June 7.

PUBLISHED JUN 1, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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A railroad bridge on the Santa Cruz Branch Line as seen from Manresa State Beach in South Santa Cruz County.

A railroad bridge on the Santa Cruz Branch Line as seen from Manresa State Beach in South Santa Cruz County.   By Eric Johnson

Rod Diridon, Sr., known as the “father” of Silicon Valley’s transit system, was in close touch with his colleagues in Santa Cruz when they began work on the Santa Cruz Rail Trail a couple decades ago. Fast-forward to an event in Santa Cruz in April, where Diridon recalled the birth of this effort, and dispensed with the notion that funding is not available to finally build intercity rail in Santa Cruz County. He then praised the folks who set the rail trail in motion.

“You did the progressive thing at that time,” Diridon said. “You protected that corridor. You did the studies that are necessary for you to obtain the funding. And you have money in the bank at the state level; you have money in the bank at the federal [level]. A lot of money in the bank at the federal level now, with the adoption of the Infrastructure Bill under President Biden last year.”

Before I continue, I want to state for the record that California Local is not taking a position on one side or the other of Measure D. We have collected a bunch of information on our Santa Cruz Rail Trail Tracker, including arguments on both sides of the issue. I’ve invited Bud Colligan, Greenway’s chief proponent, to submit an op-ed and he has agreed to do so.

 So, again, this is my personal blog post, and I am going to share some facts and quotes, and then, briefly, my opinion. Make of it what you will. 

 The main reason I decided to write this is because I believe voters would benefit from hearing about what some big names in the world of mass transit had to say at that event that took place back in April. This was to kick-off a fundraising push for the No Way Greenway campaign, and was hosted at the home of longtime local elected leader Fred Keeley. As some of you know, Keeley served Santa Cruz in a number of capacities for more than 20 years—including six years as a member of the California Assembly, where he rose to the rank of speaker pro-tem, and authored the two biggest land conservation bonds in the nation’s history. Full disclosure: Fred Keeley and I are friends. 

 Keeley had invited some people who have been working on transportation issues for many years to his home, and a big parking lot next door, along with local leaders including Santa Cruz City Councilmember Sandy Brown and Watsonville City Councilmember Vanessa Quiroz-Carter. I did not attend the event, but Fred sent me a video, and I can share what these three experts had to say about Measure D.

A Mass-Transit Icon

The first keynote came from Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and former director of the Norman Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Diridon is recognized nationally for his leadership in the field, and is the current chair of the National High Speed Rail Association’s advisory board. You know his name if you have ever been to the Diridon Station multimodal transit hub in San Jose, which was so named to honor his lifelong commitment.

 Pointing to a map showing how the Santa Cruz Branch Line would connect the county with the rest of the state’s rail system, Diridon described a vision of high-tech electric trains feeding into Caltrain commuter rail in Watsonville, and on to BART and High-Speed Rail—“if you have the courage to maintain the connection.”

I've been following the rail trail issue closely since about 2015, and again throughout the Greenway campaign, but I hadn’t really considered how the federal infrastructure plan would impact the rail trail until Diridon said these words. He was bluntly optimistic.

“One point four trillion dollars was created using your tax dollars to go into an infrastructure bill that is going to be sent out now to areas that are ready for construction. You are one of the only [projects] in the United States that have done the studies. And [that] would allow you to go into construction quickly.”

Integrity and Optimism

Carl Guardino, co-chair of the California Transportation Commission (CTC), gave the Rail Trail supporters more reason for optimism. Guardino spent a couple decades as executive director of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which was founded by David Packard in 1977, and he now works for the clean-electricity company Bloom Energy. 

Because transportation has been a serious problem in Silicon Valley forever, Guardino developed a strong interest in the topic. He has served on the CTC for more than 15 years.

Introducing Guardino, Quiroz-Carter pointed out that he was instrumental in the passage of regional and statewide voter-approved measures that together provided billions of dollars for transportation projects, as well as affordable housing.

Guardino, who commuted by bicycle from his home in Los Gatos to his offices in San Jose for almost 20 years, reminded those in attendance that the monies they received from the state were specifically intended for corridors that included rail, and that by tearing up the tracks, the people of Santa Cruz County would be breaking a promise.

He pointed out that he was on the CTC when the commission unanimously approved Proposition 116, the Rail Transportation Bond Initiative, which provided the money that paid for the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

“Your state, through your California Transportation Commission, believes in this effort,” Guardino said. “We trusted you and entrusted those hard-earned state taxpayer dollars to you on that promise and on that premise.”

He pointed out that 2016‘s Measure D transportation bond (a confusing coincidence, I know), which delivered another projected $85 million for the construction of the rail trail, was also specifically earmarked for projects that include rail transit. 

Guardino said that he is a firm supporter of bicycle trails who “pedaled what [he] preached for nearly two decades,” but said “we also need to ensure that we have transit in all its forms to accompany active transportation.”

Keeping Commitments?

The final set of remarks came from another infrastructure geek, Richard Katz, who for 16 years represented the San Fernando Valley in the state assembly, where he chaired the Committee on Transportation and led major efforts to modernize the state’s transit systems.

It was a bit of a Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan moment, because Katz is the actual author of Prop 116, which, again, is the transit bond that sent $70 million to Santa Cruz County in 1990 for the purpose of enabling both rail and trail. He echoed Guardino’s comments about the county’s responsibility to abide by the terms of that deal.

Katz also played the climate-change card. Providing fuel for Measure D opponents who see the Greenway Initiative as an effort to turn a decades- long transportation plan into, essentially, a recreation trail, Katz argued that we owe it to future generations to support clean transportation projects such as the Santa Cruz Branch Line intercity rail plan.

“You have to hold to that principle that was negotiated when this was put together,” Katz said. “We've got to make sure people maintain and respect and honor the commitments and all of the sacrifices that all of you and so many others have made to get us to this point.

“Commitments used to mean something. People's words used to mean something. Trying to follow through on those commitments was the hallmark of, frankly, a civilized society. And unfortunately we've gotten away from that. Sound bites and one-liners and snappy comebacks and trashing people on social media have replaced discourse and commonality of interest and … the ability to move forward and make progress. And so we find ourselves here again at one of those crossroads.”

A Humble Contribution to Civil Discourse

Everything above is intended as a straightforward journalistic recitation—admittedly one-sided— of facts and quotes from knowledgeable sources. I am making an argument for the rail trail and against the Greenway Initiative, not pretending otherwise.

Before wrapping this thing up, I want to share my own perspective on the issue and the tone of the debate. I believe the proponents of the Greenway initiative are sincere in their passion for a 20-foot-wide, 32-mile bicycle and pedestrian parkway running the length of Santa Cruz County. That would be an awesome resource for cyclists, hikers, parents with strollers, and a small number of commuters who, like Carl Guardino, have the stamina and resources to commute long distances or invest in an electric bicycle.

Just imagining that 32-mile-long park along the edge of the ocean in Santa Cruz County, I can easily see how that would motivate the Greenway backers, among whom are some of my good friends. There is, in my view, nothing nefarious going on here.

I want to see something very similar to this vision. I want to see a 12-to-16-foot-wide bike trail running the length of Santa Cruz County. I want to see the trail that is already being built and is more than half funded. As someone who has paid close attention to this issue for a long time, I believe that is much more likely to happen soon if Measure D is defeated.

I also believe that the Santa Cruz Rail Trail plan that has been approved by voters in several previous plebiscites, and has been approved by the state and federal agencies that have a say on the future of the Santa Cruz Branch Line, will lead to the creation of a modern electric rail line that connects Watsonville to Santa Cruz and Davenport, thus relieving traffic on Highway 1, cutting greenhouse emissions from cars stuck in that traffic, and making life better for my friends in the county that I called home for most of my adult life. I personally believe that the Greenway Initiative kills that possibility.

Last thought: I now live in Sacramento with my wife, Traci Hukill, the former editor of Metro Santa Cruz. We’re a few blocks from the American River and close to the American River Parkway, a pedestrian and cycling trail that is considered one of the best such amenities in the nation. The American River Parkway is 12 feet wide, with gravel shoulders on each side. Again, that’s how much of the Santa Cruz Rail Trail will be configured—IF the Greenway initiative is defeated. If Greenway wins, we don’t know what we’ll get. Maybe nothing for a long time.

So: Let’s build the rail trail and keep the train option open, please.

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