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  • Writer's pictureD Lane

Tweedle D or not

(Okay... that title makes little sense but it did make you wonder...)

Any self-respecting blogger in Santa Cruz (and even one who is disreputable!) must weigh in on Measure D... the Greenway initiative. And, in case you forgot, I was the Chairperson of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission not so long ago and served on the Commission for nearly 12 years. I’m a bit rusty but I do know a little about this subject.

Unlike when I’m writing about housing and homelessness, I imagine I’ll be a bit more measured in my comments. While I oppose Measure D, I think the situation is complex and I understand the doubts about rail that many people have.

I’ll start with what I feel is the most compelling reason to vote against Measure D but then share some of my own uncertainties.

I’m one of tens of thousands of Santa Cruz County residents who believe that some kind of rail transit on the existing rail line would be a tremendous benefit to our county residents and that it’s possible (possible - not certain) for our community to achieve that rail transit. I believe, if Measure D passes and the Greenway approach is followed, that the railroad tracks will not only be removed—but that they will be removed and would have zero chance of ever being put back later for rail transit.

To make this point, I invite you to consider this scenario (a thought experiment?). Imagine it is 15 years from now and the Greenway approach is in place. We have a bicycle and pedestrian “super highway” from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. It is well-used. Now imagine that the state and federal governments have prioritized electric rail transit in their funding decisions and Santa Cruz County is offered a huge grant to create a local rail transit system. Can one argue with any seriousness that the community would say: “sure, let’s tear up the bicycle highway that we just completed and install new tracks for the rail transit system.” This is pretty much the definition of fantasy, at least in terms of our community’s politics.

That is a long way of saying... if you would like to preserve the possibility of a rail transit option, Greenway and Measure D are not the way to go.

My concession to the Greenway team is this: it is going to be a heavy lift for Santa Cruz County to have rail transit even in the longer run. It will be expensive and complicated. However, when the Greenway folks claim the funding for rail will never be achieved, they are stating an opinion as though it is a fact. Difficult and complicated and uncertain are not the same as impossible. It’s worth noting that our County’s Regional Transportation Improvement Plan (for approximately the next two decades) anticipates revenues for transportation to be in the neighborhood of $4 billion. So... making very difficult choices and tradeoffs, it no longer seems “impossible” to imagine us doing the rail transit project. Another way to think about it... if we are finding the huge amount of funds required to add several miles of extra lanes onto Highway One, we might also be able to find funds for rail if we make hard choices.

However, it even gets a little better. Rod Diridon is one of California’s leading transportation policy experts. (You may have noticed that they named the train station in San Jose “Diridon Station” in recognition of his leadership on transportation.). In a recent visit to Santa Cruz, Diridon noted how competitive (for funding) the rail transit project we have is -- given that we already have full public ownership of the entire line and that we have an adopted plan for maintain the rail line as we build an excellent trail. With new state and federal funding streams for public transportation infrastructure, Diridon suggests that we have real reasons to keep the rail transit effort alive.

Now, on to other elements of the debate. Both sides have some weaknesses when they talk about how feasible the current “trail with rail” approach is and how quickly the “trail without tracks” approach will be.

Here are the complications with the rail with trail approach.

It will cost a lot of money to restore the bridges that will make the rail line viable ... and a lot of money to upgrade the line in general. There will be challenging spots along the line to squeeze in a trail next to the tracks (though it can be done). Funding for operating rail service is another challenge.

Here are the complications with the trail only approach.

The trail only approach will require a new plan, a new planning process, and a new environmental study. (There is already an approved and environmentally-studied plan for the other approach and it took many years to complete.) And then then there’s those darn railroad tracks. The federal system that regulates railroad lines has a lot of say in all of this—and the tracks cannot be removed (railbanking or not) without the feds approving it. With a slow-moving federal agency involved and a popular and influential company called Roaring Camp fighting against track removal at the local and federal level, this is more like a half-court shot than a slam dunk. So the “trail only” Greenway plan might eventually “move forward” but it will be a very slow move.

In the end, I have embraced the No on D side both because I have real hopes for rail transit...and because the Yes on D has, in fact, been misleading the community. Measure D will end up doing more to interfere with rail transit than it will do to quickly bring a super trail to fruition. To be more clear: the Greenway folks are promising to preserve the rail option when they don’t really mean it and faster action on the trail with Measure D and that seems incorrect to me. I want to be careful here... “misleading” is not a crime in politics and elections discourse. Happens all the time. I’m not condemning or blasting the Greenway effort -- but I feel comfortable using the term “misleading.”

Oh yeah...just a few more things... it’s hard not to pay attention to three realities that we have all seen:

1) A great trail with rail can exist here... because we see it now on the west side of Santa Cruz.

2) I rode the electric trolley that was brought to town for a demonstration last year. Sure, it was only a demonstration and had a lot of PR showiness. But it was quiet and efficient and it worked well.

3) Every member of both the Watsonville City Council and the Santa Cruz City Council have weighed in against Measure D. There’s some real political and social diversity among these 14 people. Hard for me to ignore... these folks often don’t agree on contentious issues like this one.

For me, it’s just not a good idea to give up on the prospect of rail... when the environmental benefits and the north county / south county equity benefits have so much potential – and we can continue to build the trail while we continue to pursue rail transit.

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