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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | santa cruz county

Help support rail right of way purchase

by David Wright

Environmentalists have been hoping for years that, someday, they might walk and cycle in the Santa Cruz County rail right of way, a 31-mile transportation corridor that runs from Davenport to Watsonville. Until recently, the prospect seemed as though it might become a reality. Unfortunately, opposition has arisen and now threatens to derail the project.

There isn't much controversy around the idea of having a rail trail in Santa Cruz County. Most people seem generally enthusiastic about the chance to walk or ride their bikes away from cars in the flat, scenic corridor. The trail will encourage tourism, increase property values along the trail, and provide transportation alternatives to Hwy. 1. The disagreement begins when discussing the best way for the county to purchase the corridor from Union Pacific.

There are two options for buying the corridor. The first involves accepting $11 million of State Prop. 116 money (specifically earmarked for Santa Cruz County) and matching it with transportation funds already allocated by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). The second option involves taxing residents as part of the highway widening sales tax measure planned for the November ballot.

In the first option, the State will provide the $11 million only if the county moves forward with some form of passenger rail service such as the proposed recreational Trolley. For many, this is a fair trade off. In fact, many people like trains and think the idea of moving around Santa Cruz by rail attractive.

The second option of a tax measure is fraught with complications. A recent RTC survey showed that the tax measure is likely to fail at the polls. Following on the heels of both a statewide bond measure to compensate for the deficit and Measure F, a tax measure by the City of Santa Cruz, it seems even less likely that voters will want to tax themselves again in order to create a wider highway.

Unfortunately, a handful of people who live adjacent to the railroad tracks, particularly in Aptos, are opposed to the Trolley and are working hard to derail the project. They are now claiming that accepting Prop. 116 money is financially risky because the Trolley will not be profitable, forcing repayment of the money to the State. This argument falls apart when one examines the facts: since 1990, when California voters approved Proposition 116, nearly $2 billion has been distributed to counties all over California. In that 13-year period there has never been a case where a county has had to return money to the State.

Even more important, one of the contenders to operate a passenger rail service, Roaring Camp, has written to the RTC guaranteeing to provide recreational rail without fare box subsidies for up to 50 years. Cliff Walters of Roaring Camp wrote, "We would work directly with the State Transportation Commission to make sure we are in compliance with their requirements of the bond funding."

Further, the State provides a 10-year period to establish a rail project. If the proposed recreational trolley project is not successful, it is likely that another project will have been established within the 10-year period. In late January, the Santa Cruz City Council expressed interest in a solar-powered rail shuttle possibly between Long Marine Lab/ Seymour Center and the soon-to-be-built Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Visitors' Center.

RTC member Supervisor Ellen Pirie appears to have been swayed by the vocal opponents and has abandoned her campaign promise to support alternative transportation projects. Pirie is now speaking out against the Trolley proposal.

Supporters of the Trolley proposal include the Sierra Club, the Santa Cruz bicycling industry, and many businesses including the Seaside Co. and Seascape Resort, as well as small businesses.

It isn't clear why people who don't like trains purchased homes next to the railroad tracks. What is clear is that Santa Cruz County needs transportation alternatives. Over 1000 rail trails have been developed in the U.S.--over 50 of these in California. Monterey County recently accepted Prop 116 money and is now developing rail and pathways for its residents. Santa Cruz County needs to do the same.

The Sierra Club favors transportation that is energy and land conserving and is the least polluting. The Trolley project and the use of the rail corridor for bicycle travel has enormous potential to reduce automobile trips in Santa Cruz County.

How to help

Contact your Santa Cruz County Supervisor to support using Prop. 116 monies to purchase the rail right of way.

Write a letter to the editor in support of this purchase and the rail project.

Attend the RTC public hearing on this issue, 7:00 p.m., Thursday, March 4 at the County Supervisors Chambers, 701 Ocean Street, Santa Cruz, to show your support. Project opponents will be there, and we must have a good turnout in support of the project.

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