‘Train Fanatics’ score a win in California battle over idled tracks

By Sarah Holder, Bloomberg CityLab, June 15, 2022

“Parallel to California’s Santa Cruz coastline, [Southern Pacific’s] Santa Cruz Branch Line was built in 1876 and runs across 32 miles of the county.

“In the middle of the 20th century, Southern Pacific ran “Suntan Special” excursions to the beach along the line. Storm damage in 2017 made parts of it unusable for freight, and no regular passenger trains have rolled in decades.

“On June 7, about 70 percent of Santa Cruz County voters rejected Measure D, the Greenway Initiative, which would have supported ripping out a portion of the tracks and replacing them with a bike path and pedestrian trail along the old train corridor.

“The outcome represents a win for rail advocates who dream of restoring passenger service to Santa Cruz, but it also highlights the tortuous process of building transportation infrastructure in California and the differing visions for sustainable growth. 

“The decisive vote was … a symbolic gesture, according to the Santa Cruz County counsel’s analysis, because what comes next will be decided by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which owns the rail line and has already been developing plans to create a combined rail-and-trail route to connect … Santa Cruz with Watsonville. [That] would improve access to Santa Cruz for the large numbers of Watsonville residents who currently commute for jobs in the service and construction industries, and help unclog perennially trafficky Highway 1: … 84 million fewer miles traveled by car per year. 

“The Regional Transportation Committee bought the rail corridor in 2012 and in 2016 secured a portion of sales tax funding to put toward analyzing its options and developing the route. … The commission has started building 13 miles of … rail-and-trail, [has] spent $18 million in public funds and another $6 million in private funds, and plans to spend a total of $85 million in the next 30 years.

“ ‘A lot of the train folks are train fanatics,’ said [William] Menchine, [a real estate builder and manager and former member of the Regional Transportation Commission’s Bike Committee.] They’re holding people hostage over the idea of this train that honestly on paper and in reality doesn’t pencil out.’ ”

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