.Supervisors Cool on Rail/Trail

COUNTY SUPERVISORS REJECT RAIL-TRAIL, PROJECT’S FUTURE NOW UNCERTAIN

A large portion of the Coastal Rail Trail project is at risk after the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday failed to approve staff recommendations to move forward with the work.

While the supervisors did approve the environmental impact report after an hours-long discussion and public comment period, they balked at approving segments 10 and 11, a 4.5-mile stretch of the project that runs from 17th Avenue in Live Oak, through Capitola to State Park Drive in Aptos.

Supervisor Felipe Hernandez made a motion to approve all staff recommendations—which included the Ultimate Trail proposal—a trail running alongside the existing rail line. But that motion, which was seconded by Supervisor Justin Cummings—failed 2-2. 

Supervisor Zach Friend abstained from the vote, saying his property near the project in question presented a conflict of interest.

Supervisor Bruce McPherson made a motion to pass only the environmental impact report for the project, which he said included additional direction for staff to come back with more detailed financial information, including how to reduce engineering costs.

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McPherson also said he wants to have discussions with Roaring Camp Railroad about sharing the $8 million cost of moving sections of the track.

He also reckons that there will be cost overrun, which could leave the remaining portions of the overall Coastal Rail Trail project without funding for portions of the trail in South County.

“There’s an overall $68 million Measure D active transportation program, and there is a $28 million hole,” he said. “It’s a huge money question mark in how we implement this, and I think everyone would agree that this is going to cost much more than what has been put out there to date.”

County spokesman Jason Hoppin said that the vote could jeopardize a $67.6 million grant from the California Transportation Commission (CTC) awarded in 2022, which was contingent on county approval of the project.

“If we don’t have that money, we can’t move forward,” he said. “The project is dead.”

That problem comes down to a matter of timing, since the county must approve the plans and present them to the CTC this summer, or risk the agency pulling the funding.

Hoppin acknowledged that there is a funding gap in the overall project, but said that the county was planning on looking for ways to cut costs.

“But if we cut that funding off now, we’re making that decision ourselves,” he said. 

Gine Johnson, an analyst in McPherson’s office, said those concerns are overblown, and said that he is doing his “due diligence” in asking for a one-to-two-month delay to get more information.

“A slight delay to get information regarding costs is not going to lose the grant,” she said.

Supervisor Manu Koenig also said his concerns centered on the cost of the project.

With about $38 million left over in the Active Transportation Trail Fund from Measure D, and with sections 10 and 11 requiring for $28 million of that, it could leave South County with no money for its portion of the project, Koenig said.

“We need to get some real answers as far as how we’re going to mitigate cost overruns, whether that’s through value engineering, or through working with Roaring Camp,” he said. 

Koenig also expressed concern about the environmental impact of the plan, which calls for cutting down from 200-1,000 trees, which he called,”an alarming amount of environmental damage.”

Koenig dismissed concerns that the vote will tank the overall project, and pointed out that it is not scheduled to go to construction until 2026–2030.

“There is still enough time that we get this right,” he said. “The notion that this is the end of the rail trail project is ridiculous. This is just saying, ‘let’s try to get these costs under control, so the whole county gets a project.’”

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