Can You Trust The Land Trust?

“The mission of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is to protect, care for, and connect people to the extraordinary lands that make this area special.”
- Mission Statement, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County

The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is a tremendous organization. They’ve done a lot of good for this community, and we are grateful for their efforts. However, when it comes to our rail corridor and the proposed rail-with-trail, they’ve missed the mark. In the Spring 2016 Newsletter, the Land Trust asked the question: What about the train? The following includes excerpts from their newsletter, along with a rebuttal from Trail Now.

 “…the rail corridor isn’t wide enough for both rail and trail.”

Land Trust:

Those making this argument seem to have two things in mind: 1) that the corridor isn’t physically wide enough for both a 12-foot trail and the train and 2) that we need to remove the tracks so we can build a 20-foot wide super-trail.

Firstly, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), which owns the corridor, says that the corridor meets minimum width requirements for 99% of its 32 miles – and thinks there are relatively straightforward engineering solutions for the few narrow spots that exist. The City of Santa Cruz’s designs for the trail from Natural Bridges to the Boardwalk prove it can be done. Most of the trail in the city will be 16 feet wide and the narrowest segments 12 feet wide. You can go deeply into the weeds on this subject, but when you come out, you basically have to ask yourself who do you trust – the engineers and planners who will build the trail, or the amateurs who say the pros are wrong. We’ve gone into the weeds and side with the pros.

The second not-wide-enough argument is that we need a 20-foot super trail to accommodate super-fast bike commuting. A 12-foot trail (the narrowest proposed section) is the width of a lane of freeway – plenty wide for bikes and walkers, even strollers and people walking together. It is the width of trails all over the bike-friendly countries of Europe that are our models. There is simply no evidence that we need a super-wide trail so people can bike commute at high speeds over long distances. How many people are going to spend an hour biking from Watsonville to Santa Cruz every day?

Trail Now:

Width is a critical component to the success of our trail. Rather than relying on anecdotes, we have opted to rely on government studies. In July 2006, the U.S. Department of Transportation published a Level of Service Study (1.3MB PDF, 69pg.) meant to aid trail designers in determining an appropriate width for shared-use paths (i.e. rail trails). Based on this government study (not our opinion) it’s estimated that our trail in Santa Cruz County would need to be a minimum of 18 feet wide to provide meaningful transportation. The key word being transportation, as opposed to recreation.

The Land Trust states that the proposed width of the trail is consistent with European trail standards; however, this is simply not true. In the United Kingdom, the Sustrans Design Manual for Cycle-Friendly Design (8.3MB PDF, 36pg.) indicates a preferred width of 23 feet (7 meters) for shared-use paths. Shared-use paths are discussed on page 24 of the manual.

In Holland, which is seen as the gold standard when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, separation of bicycle and pedestrian traffic is mandatory. Two-way bicycle paths are typically 12 to 14 feet wide with a separate 6 to 8 foot pedestrian walkway (18 to 22 feet total). A video showing various widths of Dutch cycle paths can be found below. One-way bike paths in the video average 7 feet, and two-way paths average 13 feet wide. Keep in mind, these paths are exclusive to bikes and do not include the width of the adjacent sidewalk.

Last, and most important, people must understand that the Land Trust and RTC are inflating the width of the trail by including the two foot shoulders on either side. The Caltrans Design Manual (160KB PDF, 3pg.) explicitly states: “The shoulder area is not considered part of the bike path traveled way.” This is critical as the legal minimum width for a shared-use path is 8 feet. To be clear, this does not mean a 4 foot trail with 2 foot shoulders. The legal minimum width is exactly what the Land Trust and RTC call a 12 foot trail—8 feet wide, with two foot shoulders on either side. 

An illustration from the manual is included below:

“…we’ll save $100 million if we just tear up the tracks.”

Land Trust:

Certainly tearing up the tracks and giving up on ever having passenger rail service would make building the Rail Trail cheaper. But the $100 million figure being thrown around has simply been made up. You would still need engineering, still need permits, still need to build the trail, and still need to retrofit bridges – all things that make up the vast majority of the $128 million cost of the Rail Trail.

The cost of the Rail Trail sounds like a lot of money because it is a number without context. It is actually the same amount spent by government every year on transportation in our county. If you spread the Rail Trail’s cost over 30 years (which is how you usually think of capital projects), it is just $4 million a year, 3% of annual transportation spending in our county.

Trail Now:

Yes, a “trail only” solution would be significantly less expensive. Not only that, but it would be a significantly better trail. It's estimated that 35% of the $128 million budget is associated with building brand new pedestrian bridges.  Rather than building 22 brand new bridges, we should use the existing infrastructure. This includes the Capitola Trestle, which would require a reroute with the current plan.

To justify the $128 million cost, the Land Trust compares the expense to our total transportation budget. While this may be interesting, it provides little support. There are approximately 160 rail-with-trail projects in the United States. A more appropriate question is – how does the cost of our trail in Santa Cruz County compare to these other trails? At $4 million a mile, we predict it will likely be one of the most expensive in the United States.

What’s frustrating is that the Land Trust implies in their newsletter that a “trail only” solution would forever take away passenger rail service for Santa Cruz County. This is simply not true. Santa Cruz County can have a “trail only” solution and rail! This would be possible by way of a regional Watsonville/Pajaro train station. This station will allow County residents to travel by rail to Los Angeles, Sacramento, or beyond. In our opinion, a “trail only” solution, coupled with a regional train station, is a win-win scenario for our community. What do you think?

 “…we could build the trail in 18 months without the train…”

Land Trust:

In a fantasy world we could build almost anything in 18 months (the Pentagon was built in 16 months). But in the real world, here and now, abandoning the current Rail Trail plan would lead to delays in building the Rail Trail. The current plan (a trail alongside the tracks) is the adopted plan not only of the RTC, but of the County and the three cities it passes through. The first quarter of its 32 miles has been funded by these governments and both federal and state governments. It is established government policy, developed over years with lots of public input. To reverse that policy, all these government bodies would have to hold public hearings, and new cost estimates and engineering plans would have to be developed. It would take time. The experts we talk to think that reversing course and ripping up the tracks could delay the Rail Trail by a decade or more. And there is no guarantee that, after this delay, the result would be any different than the last time we went through this process – when the public and our elected officials decided, “we want to keep the rail option open.”

Trail Now:

An 18-month timeline is in relation to a proposed interim hard-pack gravel trail -- not a long-term permanent solution. Keep in mind, all of the railroad track needs to be replaced anyway to accommodate a modern passenger rail system. Trail Now has supported removing the track and building an interim hard-pack trail in order to provide access to the corridor ASAP. Moreover, a significant portion of this trail (if not all) would be paid for by the salvage value of the railroad tracks. This has already been done in other communities like Kirkland Washington.

The Land Trust indicates that pursuing a “trail only” option would delay the trail by a decade or more; however, this is completely unfounded. It took just under two years to develop the current Master Plan (started December 2011 and adopted November 2013).

A “trail only” solution represents a revision to the existing plan; not an entirely new process started from scratch. It should be noted that the Master Plan has already been revised once. In February 2014, Segment 17 through Harkins Slough was completely rerouted. Did these revisions setback the plan 10 years? Did it require new public hearings? An entirely new EIR? The answer to these questions is NO.

Here’s a critical point that needs to be understood. Currently, the development timeline is more about political will than construction realitiesA significant amount of political capital was spent in obtaining the $11 million in funding from the CTC to purchase the rail corridor. Remember, the $11 million requires a train component. However, the CTC has since indicated via a 2015 letter (700KB PDF, 2pg.) that those funds can be returned and the corridor can be developed with any “lawful” use. Nevertheless, at the risk of personal embarrassment, the same politicians that worked hard to obtain the $11 million in funds, have no interest in returning them.

“…the train will never work, costs too much, is noisy, etc.”

Land Trust:

Maybe. Maybe passenger rail doesn’t make sense and never will. Maybe it will never be worth the cost. And maybe it will make sense one day. The Suntan Special used to bring people from the Bay Area right down to the Boardwalk. It didn’t seem to make sense anymore in the 1950s and the line was abandoned, but don’t we wish we had it now? Maybe we don’t want noisy diesel trains, but maybe we’d like some electric trams.

The transportation ballot measure that may be on the November ballot would provide funds to study various rail alternatives, including quiet light rail. We note that opponents of building the current trail now like to talk about noisy diesel trains, and are opposed to studying the quiet light rail option. We’re not. We’re for trail now and trains maybe, after further study.

Trail Now:

Herein lies the hypocrisy of this conundrum. On one hand, we’ve used $11 million in funds that require passenger rail. And, we have plans for a $128 million trail... designed to accommodate passenger rail. Yet, by their very own admission, the Land Trust indicates that passenger rail may never make sense for Santa Cruz County. Um... OK?

In November 2015 the Rail Transit Feasibility Study (11.5MB PDF, 323pg.) was completed for the RTC. This study provides more than enough information to determine the viability of passenger rail for our County. Experts provided seven hypothetical scenarios for possible train service. Four of the seven options included 60 trains a day. Furthermore, experts recommended use of diesel powered trains due to excessive costs associated with electric trains.

Maximum weekday train ridership was estimated at only 2,750 weekday passengers in 2015 (based on 60 trains a day and 5,500 boardings). More importantly, experts projected future ridership in year 2035. By taking into account population growth and employment growth, the projected maximum ridership only increased to 3,400 weekday passengers in 2035 (based on 60 trains a day and 6,800 boardings). These are not compelling numbers and the “we may need the train someday” supporters conveniently ignore them.

Folks in this County feel like passenger rail is being forced down our throat. And, rightfully so. We used $11 million in funding that requires a train, and we have a plan for a trail that accommodates a train. Based on this policy, the RTC’s position is not a matter of “if” a train is coming, it’s simply a matter of when. Otherwise, what’s the contingency plan? What’s “Plan B” if passenger rail is not viable? Currently, that plan does not exist.

Ultimately, we believe the rail corridor should be railbanked. Railbanking was adopted by Congress in 1983 as part of the National Trails System Act.  Railbanking is a method by which corridors can be preserved for future rail use through interim conversion to a trail. Sound familiar?

Arguments have been made against railbanking; however, these arguments are grounded more in politics than practicality. Fact is, the RTC has the wherewithal to railbank the corridor if they were interested. In 2005, the RTC hired an expert to explore the likelihood of abandoning the rail corridor (a precursor to railbanking). The expert concluded (850KB PDF, 10pg.) that there was “no chance” that abandonment would be denied by the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

Moreover, multiple independent appraisers concluded that the corridor should be abandoned. From the March 2010 appraisal completed by Sierra West Valuation Inc.:

Nearly all of the due diligence completed for the purchase of the corridor indicated that it should be abandoned. Nevertheless, due to the $11 million in funding that requires a train component, the RTC entered a 10-year lease agreement with Iowa Pacific. Currently, Iowa Pacific operates a seasonal Christmas train and limited freight service in Watsonville. Recently, the company requested to store 900 oil tanker cars on our branch for up to 3 years. Is this really the best use of our transportation corridor?

“Trail and train are separate projects...”

Land Trust:

The trail and the train may share a common corridor, but they are separate projects, with different timelines, costs, and goals. The Rail Trail has already been through a long public process and has been approved by all levels of government. A quarter of it has already been funded and will be completed within two years. Well over half could be funded within a year.

The public process for the train option is still underway, no decisions have been made, and funding and construction is, at best, years away. To delay building the trail now, to forever kill the possibility of rail service, is to waste the opportunity before us to build something that will transform how people get around our county.

Right now 9% of work trips in the City of Santa Cruz are made on bicycles. In Davis it is double that and bike-friendly European cities double Davis. We believe this 32-mile road without cars will dramatically change how people get around our county. We see Santa Cruz reaching Davis levels of bike use, maybe one day approaching those lofty European levels. Why not? And why not seize the opportunity before us to build a trail within a mile of half the county’s population – and 45 schools and 92 parks?

Trail Now:

While the trail and the train may be seen as two separate projects; they are heavily intertwined. As we’ve discussed, the cost and utility of the trail are significantly affected by accommodating the train tracks. As an example, the width of the trail is not based on the number of users. Instead, width is a function of proximity to the railroad tracks.

Fact is, nowhere in the Master Plan are the number of trail users estimated. Would you build a highway without estimating traffic counts first? Or, would you build a passenger rail system without estimating ridership first? If the trail is meant to be a transportation alternative—it needs to be held to the same standard.

The Land Trust implies that, by building the current rail-with-trail, we may one day see Davis levels of bike use (20%), or maybe one day European levels (40%). However, if we want Davis and European levels of bike ridership—we need to build Davis and European level of bike infrastructure.

The Santa Cruz County Bicycle Master Plan (19MB PDF, 65pg.) set an ambitious goal for bicycle commuters to be at 20% of all work trips by 2035. That’s about 25,000 people! As of 2011, it was estimated that there are about 2,600 bicycle commuters in the County.

Now, let’s compare those numbers to the estimated train ridership. Again, maximum ridership was estimated at only 2,750 people in 2015 and 3,400 people by 2035. Bear in mind, we would have to spend over a $100 million in rail infrastructure plus about $11 million a year in operating costs—just to get the 2,750 passengers.

Folks, at least 2,600 people are commuting by bicycle today! Shouldn’t we foster the growth of this existing healthy and sustainable transportation alternative. Or, should we stifle the growth of active transportation so that we can accommodate a train that will likely never be built?

A commonality among all groups is that we have an opportunity to do something truly special here. For generations, transportation planning has primarily focused on the car. The unintended consequence of this has been to suppress walking and cycling across all sectors of society. This imbalance has resulted in increased carbon carbon emissions and damaged our environment. By shifting from motorized transport to cleaner, healthier travel, particularly for shorter journeys, we can make a significant contribution towards tackling these issues.

However, critical to any shift will be the development of high quality infrastructure suitable for people of all ages and all abilities to get around safely without a car. We can’t just build infrastructure for the walkers and bike riders of today. We must have the foresight to accommodate the goals of tomorrow.

By all accounts, common sense and logic have long since left this debate. In their place, is politics and ego. Nevertheless, we only have one shot to get this right. Instead of focusing on what’s politically expedient, we must focus on what’s best for our community.

Could it take a little longer? Maybe. But, it will surely be less expensive, and the result will be truly astounding. A ribbon of land, a linear park, designed for transportation, and used for recreation, showcasing the greatness of Santa Cruz County.