The historic Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line could take you from Watsonville to Davenport by 2040. Though the tracks have fallen out of use, the Rail Trail proposal would establish a passenger train system on these tracks. 

The Rail Trail proposal lays the groundwork for a railway along an existing 32-mile coastal rail corridor stretching from Watsonville to Davenport. The railway runs alongside a bicycle and pedestrian trail. The project presents an opportunity for Santa Cruz County to address urgent issues like accessibility and climate change. 

Rail Trail proponents want to maintain the rail tracks and develop a large-scale train transit system to connect the county. Opponents want to remove the rail tracks in favor of an expanded bicycle and pedestrian trail, coupled with increased funds for the Santa Cruz METRO bus system.

“I’m not aware of any other country in the global north that has not embraced and continued to support a really vital and active train transit network,” said Santa Cruz City Council Member and Regional Transportation Commissioner Sandy Brown. “Within that framework people consider it a public good, a public benefit.”

Map of existing railroad tracks. Image courtesy of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) held a public hearing on Jan. 14 to debate four transit options for the Rail Trail. The commission’s official recommendation for an electric passenger train is either a light rail or a commuter rail.

Proposed Light Rail Transit Service. Image courtesy of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
Proposed Commuter Rail Transit Service. Image courtesy of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

A light rail would provide higher ridership than a commuter rail. Though smaller, the light rail can run more frequently and would have more stops than a commuter rail. Both have similar projected costs.

On Feb. 4, the RTC will vote on whether or not to accept this recommendation.

Funding Difficulties and Possibilities

An electric passenger train would cost $450 million for construction, plus $25 million annually for maintenance.

All sides agree funding is not currently available for such a massive infrastructure project, but disagree on when it may appear. Funding for the project would be contingent on approving new local taxes and securing state and federal grants in the near future.

Railway supporters like RTC Commissioner Alternate Andy Schiffrin, who has been on the commission since 1976, argue against removing the tracks too soon, pointing at the changing federal administration and future climate change policies as factors to consider.

“Where we are now isn’t where we’re always going to be,” Schiffrin said. “It is critical that we don’t give up the possibility of having a different transportation mode along the corridor that we own.”

On the issue of local funding, First District County Supervisor and RTC Commissioner Manu Koenig believes it would be difficult for a local tax measure to pass in the near future.

“Based on the failure of recent countywide tax measures like Measure R—Cabrillo College, 2020, and Measure H—Affordable Housing, 2018, it’s very likely that a measure to actually fund rail would fail,” Koenig said in an email.

Echoing Schiffrin, Santa Cruz City Council Member and RTC Commissioner Sandy Brown said a rail system would be unlikely without federal and state support.

In the Jan. 14 meeting, Caltrans Senior Transportation Planner Shannon Simonds presented the California State Rail Plan. Simonds suggested the plan could bring funding to develop a Santa Cruz railway, connecting it to a statewide rail network.

2040 Vision for Northern California Rail. Image Courtesy of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

Climate Concerns

Advocates of maintaining the rail option argue that a future rooted in electric trains and other electric vehicles is the most reasonable option to address climate change.  

“I can confidently say having an electric passenger rail would be a huge, huge benefit for greenhouse gas reductions,” Brown said. “The idea that simply pulling up the tracks and having a wide path will actually [reduce] greenhouse gas emissions because more people are going to ride their bikes between the two cities, that’s just a fantasy, it’s not realistic.”

In an email, Koenig called for urgent changes to the county’s transportation infrastructure to address climate change, but would rather see improvements made to current infrastructure.

“We will create affordable transportation when we better manage the infrastructure we already have: our highway and our METRO buses,” Koenig said in an email. “Better use of what we already have is the essence of affordability.”

With questions around railway options and funding availability still in the air, the Rail Trail proposal is still in its early stages. The Feb. 4 RTC vote will make an official recommendation on the viability and next steps of the proposal.