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Oct 08th
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On Track

rail TracksPlans for Santa Cruz County’s Scenic Rail Trail chug along

The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail is now closer to becoming a reality thanks to the approval of $5.3 million in funding.

At its Thursday, Dec. 5 meeting, The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) voted to approve $14 million in state and federal funding for 26 projects. This includes $5.3 million for three sections of what’s known colloquially as the Rail Trail. Those segments include a 2.4-mile portion from Natural Bridges Drive to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, a stretch from Fifth to Seventh avenues along East Cliff Drive in Twin Lakes and a portion connecting Lee Road to the slough trail system in Watsonville.

“We’re very excited,” says Karena Pushnik, a spokeswoman and senior planner with the RTC. “This is really our long-awaited kickoff moment.”

When completed, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network will provide connections to coastal access points and other destinations for bicyclists, pedestrians and other non-motorized travel via a trail network that is mostly adjacent to the Santa Cruz branch rail. The Santa Cruz County Sanctuary Interagency Task Force originally conceived the two-county pathway project, which will connect Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and it’s been championed by Congressman Sam Farr.

The trail plan, which has been in the works in some form or another for about two decades and is expected to cost $122 million, includes a so-called 32-mile “spine” of trails built parallel to the operational rail line. That section of the total 50-mile trail network has been the focus of the RTC’s master plan. Key to the plan is the Branch Rail Line, which the RTC purchased from Union Pacific in October 2012. The process of purchasing it first began back in the 1990s.

When eventually completed, the Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Trail is expected to be a major asset to Santa Cruz County in terms of transportation, recreation, education, coastal access and economic vitality. The corridor will help increase transportation options to 88 parks and 42 schools, among other places.

Getting to this point has been a lengthy process, requiring an extensive master plan to be devised by the RTC.

 “Initially, what we did [at the most recent RTC meeting], was have the commission allocate funding to the jurisdictions for this project,” says Cory Caletti, the RTC’s senior transportation planner assigned to the project.

The Natural Bridges segment, known as Segment 7, includes a water and rail crossing at Neary Lagoon as well as a rail crossing near Rankin Street. More than $4 million—a majority of the approved $5.3 million—has been allocated to this portion.

Also at its Dec. 5 meeting, the commission approved the construction of a 4,000-foot-long pathway to run parallel to the railroad tracks along Lee Road. The plan includes building a 500-foot-long retaining wall with a fence near Lee Road, and the relocation of a four-by-six-foot railroad building at the Ohlone Parkway, among other changes.

 “Basically, the thing to know is that we have kind of a scoring for each segment [of the trail],” says Caletti.

That scoring system is based on using what Caletti calls a “quantifiable lens” to view segment implementation.

“There’s various criteria, including the number of bridge crossings, expenses and the number of people the segment is serving,” explains Pushnik.

The Lee Road segment scores highly, Caletti says, and is thus a priority for implementation for a number of reasons: It provides good coastal access, there are minimal bridge crossings necessary, and there are a low number of right-of-way constraints, she says.

The RTC won’t be doing the physical construction of the segments, however. That’s left up to the various city and country jurisdictions where each piece is located.

“Our job is to look for funding,” says Pushnik. “And we’ll be continuing to look under every rock for funding.”

Monterey County has its own plan for implementing its portion of the trails.

Locally, “this project might be eligible for other sources of funding that we aren’t as familiar with,” says Pushnik. “There are lots of folks in the public who are interested in moving this project forward.”

Allocating the funds, as the RTC has done, was the fastest way to get the project going, says Pushnik.

The costs include planning and construction, of course, but permitting also plays a significant role in the funding process. There are a number of design considerations that also invoke permitting, as well as numerous environmental requirements, which can be labor intensive and costly.

Though the completion of the trail is still a way down the line, the funding approval is a huge step forward, as was approval of the master plan back in November. 

The full master plan can be viewed online at

Comments (2)Add Comment
Transportation Planner/Project Manager - SCCRTC
written by Cory Caletti, December 20, 2013
Two minor corrections/clarifications:
- Segment 7 in the City of Santa Cruz ranks highly, not the segment in Watsonville (that's more in the mid-range).
- The RTC may be managing the physical construction at some point in the future.
- The stretch from Fifth to Seventh Avenue in Santa Cruz County is not a "rail trail" project but rather on-street improvements. Trail Network project encompasses 50 miles of bike/ped facilities which includes the 32 mile rail trail as well as on-street improvements which this project falls under.
Train or Water?
written by Bill Smallman, December 19, 2013
Before this money is spent, I think other options should be explored. I'm not against the train, but many question its sustainability. If the tracks were removed and the bike path constructed in the same location, you actually net a savings by salvaging the rails and ties. More importantly, a recycled water pipeline could also be constructed in its place. For +/-125 million, you would not only have a bike path, but solve the huge water issue plaguing the area as well. Train, or water? I think most would choose the latter, and SCCRTC needs to be more open to this possibility.

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