The possibility of Electric Passenger Rail will briefly become a reality in Santa Cruz County in two weeks. Clean-energy, battery-powered streetcars will have free demonstrations in Santa Cruz and Watsonville to raise awareness of the need for passenger light rail. 

Coast Futura, a coalition of local public transit advocates, is bringing the streetcars to Santa Cruz County to show the viability that Electric Passenger Rail could have along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. This rail corridor stretches 32 miles along the coast from Davenport to Watsonville. Coast Futura sees this light rail system as a way to ease traffic congestion and make commuting easier.

“A large percentage of the workers who come into Santa Cruz County come from outside of Santa Cruz proper, and a large number from Watsonville,” said spokesperson for Coast Futura, Lani Faulkner. “Right now, if they don’t own a car, they’re stuck waiting for a bus for an hour to two hours, and then they’re in traffic for another hour.” 

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) purchased the Branch Rail Line in 2012. Ever since, there has been community support for an Electric Passenger Rail to be developed on the line. Advocates also want to maintain a pedestrian and biking path next to the rail line, which they say would address transit and sustainability issues and be a long-term investment in the county’s infrastructure. 

Slugs For Coast Connect founder Michael Wool believes that UC Santa Cruz students have a stake in the rail line too. 

Despite the community support for a sustainable light rail, its future is far from certain. In a recent vote on whether to continue pursuing Light Rail on the Branch Line, the RTC came to a stalemate –– six for, six against.  

Santa Cruz County Greenway, the major opposition to the Electric Passenger Rail, is taking this opportunity to collect signatures to put the Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative on the ballot in 2022. If passed, it will fundamentally amend the County General Plan, which will make pursuing a light rail more difficult. 

The streetcar demonstrations in Watsonville will run on Oct. 16 and 17 from downtown to the Slough Farm, and in Santa Cruz from the Boardwalk to the Capitola Wharf Overlook from Oct. 21-24. Free tickets to ride in the streetcars during the demonstrations sold out quickly.

“It’s super subtle,” said Kyle Kelley, a transit activist and Commissioner for Transportation and Public Works in Santa Cruz. “What it means is that RTC staff will never suggest doing rail again, because it’s been taken out. We would have to have a ballot measure to even consider doing rail.”

Greenway believes that a rail line would exacerbate transit and sustainability issues instead of solving them, and pushes for the RTC to further invest in existing public transport, like the METRO. 

“The proposal that they put on the table is basically a tourist train from Capitola to Davenport, which is not going to reduce any traffic or congestion in Santa Cruz County,” said Greenway Board Member, Bud Colligan. 

Greenway’s ideal plan is to railbank the corridor, removing the railroad tracks while keeping much of the rail line’s infrastructure, keeping open the possibility of rail in the future. In the meantime, they want to invest in a pedestrian and bicycle path along the corridor, a choice they hope will prioritize the environment and public health by incentivizing locals to walk, run, and bike along the trail. 

Commissioner and City Council Member Sandy Brown, who supports light rail from her seat on the RTC, has doubts about the viability of a bike path as a means of sustainable transportation.

“[The bike path] will be for recreation, for people who have free time to enjoy,” Brown said. “For people in a hurry, it’s just not realistic to think that a bike path is going to meet that need.” 

Brown believes that by not investigating how a light rail could be funded and installed, the stalemate gives “a lot of oxygen for activists making big sweeping claims. They’re all empirical questions that can only be answered with some evidence.”

And how to get that evidence? First the RTC would need to agree on a business plan that allows them to pursue funding on the federal and statewide levels. A plan that won’t pass as long as the RTC is at a stalemate. 

According to Colligan, Greenway has collected over 9,000 signatures for its ballot initiative. 

What happens next for the rail line depends on the RTC, as well as who can act faster in convincing the County of their vision: Greenway, or Coast Futura.