Santa Cruz Co. rail trolley decision expected Tuesday
- Published Tuesday, March 2, 2004, in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Rail-trail decision expected Thursday
By Heather Boerner
Sentinel Staff Writer
It comes down to this: After months of heated debate about a
possible tourist trolley running from Capitola to Aptos, the county
Regional Transportation Commission is set to decide Thursday night
whether to keep heading down this road.
The commission will vote whether to proceed with an environmental
report on the trolley, proposed to run between Capitola and Aptos
with an extension to Seascape. If the commission decides not to, and
chooses not to explore a tourist line elsewhere in the county, it
must give up $11 million in Proposition 116 funds the state set
aside to buy the Union Pacific right of way that runs from
Watsonville to Davenport.
Money questions are fueling the debate. Opponents ask whether using
the state's $11 million and $10 million set aside by the commission
to buy the branch line is a prudent investment. Depending on the
speaker, the plan to use the money is a "ruse" or the argument
against it is a "red herring."
The commission has talked about buying the rail line for years. But
last year it devised a plan to establish a tourist train with four
potential routes: Santa Cruz to Davenport, downtown Santa Cruz to
the city's Harvey West Neighborhood, Santa Cruz to Capitola or
Capitola to Aptos. At a well-attended meeting in the fall, the
commission chose Capitola to Aptos.
The commission is comprised of 12 members, including each member of
the county Board of Supervisors, representatives of each city in the
county, as well as the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and
So far, the commission has been split on the plan. Capitola
representative Dennis Norton has been one of the plan's most
outspoken supporters, while 2nd District Supervisor Ellen Pirie, who
represents Mid-County, has said she's worried about continuing to
pursue the state money and is interested in finding other ways to
fund the purchase.
If the commission buys the line, it also plans to establish a rail-
trail that would run the length of the 31-mile Union Pacific line
and create a bicycle and pedestrian trail from one end of the county
to the other.
The proposal calls for a private company to operate the tourist
train in the summer months with no subsidies from the commission.
If the commission decides to drop the Capitola to Aptos line,
transportation planner Karena Pushnik said it could still try to buy
the rail line with the $11 million in Prop. 116 funds, by using the
state money to put rail on another part of the line, or by using
other money to buy it and not employing a train at all.
Bikes vs. potholes
It is not surprising that some of the trolley's greatest proponents
are people who favor rail as well as bicycle enthusiasts and
activists. They say it's the only way to get a public bike path that
spans the county.
The county "can't afford not to do this," said Micah Posner of
Friends of the Rail-Trail and People Power.
To that end, Posner and the alternative transportation advocacy
group People Power have come up with a faux dollar bill, marked as
$11 million, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's face on it. Below
Schwarzenegger's face reads, "You don't want the money???"
The other side sports a picture of a section of the rail line in
Aptos and the words, "The will of the people." The group has
gathered about 1,500 signatures from county residents, many from Mid-
County, who support the rail purchase. Groups including the Sierra
Club support using the money to buy the rail line.
Paul Elerick of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation believes
the Prop. 116 funds should be used to purchase the rail line. The
other alternatives touted include adding the branch line purchase to
the list of projects funded by the sales tax measure county
residents will consider in November. That measure, a half-cent sales
tax, would pay for the widening of Highway 1 as well as other
"But that doesn't make sense to me," said Elerick, an Aptos
resident. "Why throw another $11 million onto a measure that people
wouldn't have to pay otherwise?"
But opponents say, given the current financial picture, it doesn't
make sense to spend the $10 million on a project that isn't
Sue Renner, who lives near the proposed train station in Capitola,
said people need to break away from the idea that "you have to use
Prop. 116 to buy the line, and that means you have to have a train,
and that's the only way you'll get the rail-trail." She said that
has yet to be proven.
Neil McElwee agreed.
"I think our position is best summed up as, `You're spending time,
effort and money in the wrong place,'" said McElwee, head of the
community group Santa Cruz Coalition Against Recreational
Rail. "That money can be better spent filling potholes, building
sidewalks. There was a sound wall that was supposed to be built 10
years ago. Where are the bike lanes? In these times of real economic
strife, don't put money where we don't need it."
Pushnik said in order to spend the money on other things, it would
take an action of both the county and state transportation
Another issue is whether, if the tourist train fails, the commission
would have to repay the state funds. Last year, Commissioner Jan
Beautz sent a letter to the California Transportation Commission,
which distributes the money, asking under what conditions the money
would have to be repaid.
The local commission has yet to receive the Prop. 116 funds, and if
the commission decides not to do any rail on the line, it would not
receive the money. If they decide to do rail and the project fails,
commissioners such as Beautz and Pirie have gone on the record
saying they're worried they'd have to return the funds.
The letter the commission got back from Assistant Deputy Director
Kathie Jacobs stated, in part, that the commission
requires "projects that consist of state funding to be kept
operating for its useful life of the capital equipment, which could
be between 40 to 50 years."
That triggered McElwee and others to assert that not only is it
frivolous to buy the rail line, but it could actually be fiscally
dangerous. They say it could lead to either the county having to
sell the line to repay the state or subsidize the rail line with
money that would otherwise go to the county's bus system or other
McElwee points to a staff report showing the Capitola to Aptos line
is not expected to be a big moneymaker. The bigger moneymaker would
go from Santa Cruz to Capitola.
But Posner and other supporters of the project call the concern
a "red herring."
"For us to have to pay that money back, the county would have to be
in collusion," Posner said. "We'd have to want to give back the
He points to the letter from Jacobs, which, in addition to saying
the state would like the train to run for 40 years, explains that
the state Transportation Commission "typically looks at each
particular project at the time we're notified that a project that
included state funding will be sold or cease to exist for its
intended purpose. At that time, a determination is made regarding
whether any payback, if any, would be necessary."
It's unclear whether the state would force the city to pay back the
money. Supporters of the Aptos-Capitola train say this proves that
the fear over returning the money is just that -- an irrational
Elerick said the state has yet to demand a return of Prop. 116 money
for any reason.
Jacobs was unavailable for comment Monday.
Phil Dow, who helped write the guidelines for the use of Prop. 116
funds, said he'd be shocked if the state asked for the money back.
"I don't see that anyone has contemplated ever reimbursing anyone
for an honest and good faith effort to run rail on the line," said
Dow, now head of the Mendocino County Association of
Governments. "If they intended to put rail on the line, I don't
think they would come down on them. Probably, they'd just want to
make sure it was a good purpose."
The meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Board of Supervisors
chamber, 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.
Contact Heather Boerner at hboerner@...
[BATN: See also:
Letter: SCruz Co. rail line upkeep will be costly
Letter: Don't risk SCruz rail ROW for Hwy 1 widening
SCruz Co. Supe candidates differ on Hwy 1, rail ROW
Letter: Stop "tourist trolley" rail project now
Letters: Widen Hwy 1 now; buy & preserve rail line
Letter: Suggestions on Santa Cruz rail plan
Letters: Make wise investment in Santa Cruz rail ROW
Letters: Santa Cruz Co. trolley opposition ridiculous
Letter: Santa Cruz Co. RTC trolley "irresponsible"
Letter: Santa Cruz Co. rail stance misrepresented
Editorial: Santa Cruz Co. trolley idea is half-baked
Santa Cruz Co. rail trolley project may stall
Santa Cruz trolley proponents launch media campaign
Column: SCruz Co. trolley an issue in Supes race
Letter: SCruz Co. trolley NIMBY website misleading
Santa Cruz area NIMBYs blast rail trolley plan
Santa Cruz Co. RTC to hold meeting on trolley EIR
Capitola-Aptos tourist trolley report presented
Santa Cruz RTC to give bus, rail report the brush-off
Editorial: Santa Cruz trolley idea irresponsible
Santa Cruz aims to buy rail line for trail, trolley
Santa Cruz Co. eyes Capitola-Aptos tourist train
Santa Cruz Co to seek Prop 116 cash for rail line