Good Times received a letter to the editor about Measure D a few weeks ago that was not an opinion intended to sway readers, but instead an earnest request for assistance in making an informed and educated choice when casting their vote.
“It’s really difficult to sort out the different (and often contradictory) information that groups for and against Measure D are citing. Could you please do a fact-checking and vocabulary-defining piece that attempts to put us all on the same page?”
The writer of this letter isn’t alone. Measure D is arguably the most contentious issue on a Santa Cruz County ballot in the last 30 years, and unbiased information has sometimes been hard to come by. A prickly haze of fear, persecution and paranoia has built up around the rail-trail debate—as has a barrage of misinformation and rhetoric.
How to cut through all that? Let’s start by laying out what voters will actually see on the ballot. Measure D, also called the “Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative,” asks, “Shall voters adopt the measure to amend the Circulation Element of the County’s General Plan related to use of the Santa Cruz Branch Line Rail Corridor as set forth in the Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative Petition?”
But that phrasing doesn’t really explain what a “yes” vote or a “no” vote would mean for the hotly debated future of rail and trail in Santa Cruz County.
A deeper dig into the language of the measure provides further explanation: If Measure D passes, a halt would be placed on “all references to railroad maintenance, rail transit planning and the like from the county’s general plan.” Meanwhile, if Measure D fails, the county would be able to move forward with its general plan, which currently includes plans for both rail and trail.
For a more detailed explanation of the mechanics of Measure D, read our story on page 10. We trust that all of this information will give our letter writers, and the rest of our readers, a clear understanding of what D would do. (And for an explanation of why it might not ultimately matter, read our other story on page 10).
Beyond that, however, we want to explain what both supporters and opponents of the measure are saying. Taken together, we hope that all of this information will allow readers to make the most informed decision for themselves.
Yes on D: What Supporters Are Saying
Melody Venes lives with her dog Roxy aboard a boat called MeloDays in the Santa Cruz Harbor. The 56-year-old isn’t afraid to tell the stranger gazing over a Measure D ad in the newspaper at the bar near her floating home what she thinks of it all.
“I would love to see the current railroad system turned into a bike path that’s safe for people,” she says, explaining one of her friends was recently killed in a cycling accident. “He was one of the most joyful, pleasant people you could possibly know.”
According to California Highway Patrol data, there were about 8,800 cyclist crashes and 151 deaths in 2020—and Venes believes her friend might still be alive today if a greenway was available.
“He wouldn’t have had the obstacles,” she says.
Venes also supports Measure D because she thinks the tracks are in disrepair. Back when she lived in Seacliff, she remembers walking towards a derailed train to have a look for herself.
“It was surreal,” she says, remembering askew cars amidst the coastal landscape. “They were tipped sideways off the rail.”
Venes says she’s not anti-rail, but simply thinks a commuter rail line would make more sense next to Highway 1—not through neighborhoods.
“It would be loud; it would be too fast,” she says. “I don’t even like the idea of riding a bike next to a railroad.”
That doesn’t fit her vision for the place she moved to from Colorado.
“Santa Cruz is a small town,” she says. “We’re very nature-oriented.”
Venes says she’s given money to support Greenway, and is anxious to see Measure D pass.
So is Bud Colligan, who’s been spearheading the trail-only push for years. The former Macromedia executive says financial disclosure forms show many locals support the group’s efforts on Measure D. According to regulatory filings since the beginning of the year, the Yes Greenway campaign has brought in $317,343.92 in donations—about twice as much as the No Way Greenway campaign ($159,780.42). While some of that arrived in large amounts from wealthy individuals, Greenway has also drawn smaller contributions from people like Venes.
“I think if we had a great trail we would save a lot of lives,” says Colligan, adding he believes a recreational route would be the best use of taxpayer dollars. “We should build the simplest, least-complex thing on the rail corridor.”
According to Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Executive Director Guy Preston, while a quality trail might cost as much to build as the recent half-a-million-dollar estimate for passenger rail construction (depending on what environmental, legal and engineering challenges arise), light rail would likely come with an annual $25 million price tag for operations. If government grants are forthcoming, and locals agree to a small tax hike, that could theoretically happen, says Preston, but he adds that complicated infrastructure projects have a way of running over budget.
Santa Cruz County could end up with a situation like what’s happening in the North Bay, where Cloverdale has been paying towards a rail line it was promised before the transit authority ran out of money and voters defeated an extra sales tax proposal, he says.
Here in the Monterey Bay, the county says it could build an initial trail from 17th Avenue to State Park Drive for about $33.4 million, or a rail-and-trail option for $70.2 million. If a trail is built and a rail option is later pursued, that would bring the total to $114.6 million for that portion, known as Sections 10 and 11. Officials admit these figures leave out additional costs, such as fixing aging infrastructure.
Project Manager Rob Tidmore calls the trail-only choice an “optional first phase” that currently can’t be constructed.
“To build the interim trail, you have to remove the railroad track,” he says. “To remove the railroad tracks, you have to railbank the corridor.”
He says it’s unclear if that process would be successful. But supporters of Measure D say building a trail next to the tracks would also require feats of engineering, with new pedestrian bridges and retaining walls to tame the steep topography.
At the moment, local planners have been proceeding with the idea that electric passenger rail is the goal for the corridor, Tidmore says, adding the upcoming vote could impact that trajectory.
Measure D supporters also point to the pitfalls of dealing with landowners whose homes butt into the corridor. There are 180 known encroachments just to the east of the San Lorenzo River alone.
Mark Esquibel, chairman of the Reform Party of Santa Cruz County, says he’s familiar with complications like these. As a right-of-way specialist for Kinder Morgan, Inc, he worked on an East Bay project called the Iron Horse Regional Trail that was a rail line in its previous life.
He also served as the subject matter expert for the pipeline company during BART’s extension from Fremont to San Jose.
“They spent $750 million on nine miles of track,” he says, adding it can be time-consuming to secure property rights. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
In the last round of Santa Cruz County elections, Esquibel ran for District 1 Supervisor; after dropping out of the race, he endorsed pro-Greenway candidate Manu Koenig, who defeated incumbent John Leopold. That helped turn the tide towards the path-only alternative in some local government circles.
Esquibel says dozens of owners would probably have to be moved—one way or another—to make way for stations and parking lots.
“Those people are going to be asked to sell, and then forced to sell,” he says. “I actually moved a lot of families on the Iron Horse Trail.”
That particular line has now become a popular recreation trail. It’s what Measure D supporters want for Santa Cruz County.
Next to the old railway depot that’s now a museum in Danville, on the Iron Horse route, area resident Melissa says the paved path works great for dogs, bikes and strollers. Another local, Marty, says he appreciates that they ripped out the tracks and put in a trail.
“People love this—they really do,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to be walking along and having a train next to me.”
Back in the Santa Cruz Harbor on the MeloDays, as two paddlers silently glide by in a kayak, Venes works on organizing a hike along the rail corridor to encourage more people to vote Yes on D.
“We don’t want to lose that greenspace to the commuter train situation,” she says. “It would be nice to have a safe bike and hike path.”
No on D: What Opponents are Saying
It’s a sunny Santa Cruz day near a stretch of trail behind the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery.
Several representatives from the No Way Greenway group that is leading the opposition to Measure D are poised to present their arguments. Sporting No Way Greenway T-shirts, buttons and holding lawn signs, an impromptu roundtable begins. Their message: Santa Cruz County’s future is dependent on the failure of Measure D.
Mark Mesiti-Miller, No on D and No Way Greenway campaign co-chair, Melani Clark, Roaring Camp Railroads CEO, Lani Faulkner, Equity Transit director, and Cabrillo College trustee Adam Spickler come from very different backgrounds, but have been brought together by their opposition to Measure D. According to No Way Greenway, Measure D would be disastrous for Santa Cruz County.
“If Measure D fails, plans that have been in the works for over two decades, that have been through the wringer of public meetings—over 100 public meetings were held to develop the master plan for rail with trail, and that plan was adopted by everyone: the California Coastal Commission, every city that the rail line runs through, the County, everybody has blessed that plan,” Mesiti-Miller says, without taking a breath. “If Measure D fails, that plan continues without interruption, without delay. And that’s the vision that everyone in this community has been working on for so long.”
The plan Mesiti-Miller refers to is at the heart of the debate: A decade ago, the RTC purchased a 32-mile segment of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line that extends from Watsonville up to Davenport. Since then, countless hours and millions of dollars—on top of the $14.2 million spent on the rail line—have gone into transportation studies. So, if Measure D passes, opponents argue, the tracks will be covered to build a larger trail and that plan that consultants, city planners and officials and volunteers have dedicated thousands of hours to will be all for nothing.
“We are already decades deep into moving forward on continuing electric light passenger rail, and what that means for our carbon footprint and transportation equity,” Spickler says. “I want future generations to look back and say that we did the right thing. We kept transportation options in place. We didn’t reduce them.”
Faulkner says rejection of Measure D would mean a path to empowerment for an often-overlooked segment of the population.
“For people who are disabled and elderly, people who have no other way to get around the county other than public transportation, rail in particular is such a powerful way to get around, because you don’t have to sit in traffic,” Faulkner says. “People from Watsonville sit in traffic or wait for buses for hours. The failure of Measure D allows [the County] to apply for funds that will improve both our rail and bus systems, which would serve a much wider swath of our community.”
Mesiti-Miller’s passion is as big as his six-foot, six-inch frame.
“Measure D does only two things,” he begins, “remove the railroad tracks between Santa Cruz and Watsonville and rewrite the general plan to prohibit the County of Santa Cruz from studying or planning rail transit in the rail corridor forever. Read the impartial analysis on the County’s election department website. You will see the words adopting the Greenway initiative do not guarantee a greenway will be constructed. That’s what’s at stake.”
He says the argument over Measure D has been twisted into a debate over issues the measure itself does not address.
“[Greenway] talks about the cost of a train, but the cost of a train is not even on the ballot,” he says. “What’s on the ballot is: Do we want to make sure that there’s no possibility that rail transit will ever be constructed in the rail corridor?”
Meanwhile, the RTC’s Preston is on record saying that if Measure D passes, Roaring Camp Railroad’s ability to run trains to the Boardwalk would not “directly” be jeopardized. However, language is key when discussing anything related to Measure D, whether for or against, and Roaring Camp CEO Clark believes her business would be directly affected if Measure D passes. While Roaring Camp is known for its leisurely treks to the Beach Boardwalk and back to its headquarters in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the company also has the rights to the Felton freight line. Clark says Measure D could prevent freight from ever being run on it.
“It’s important to us and the San Lorenzo Valley that we have our rail link that goes up [to the Santa Cruz Mountains],” Clark says. “We had all of the fire chiefs from San Lorenzo Valley write a letter opposing Measure D because it also plays an important role for all emergency services. If there were a fire in the Valley, the train’s ability to transport people out or transport water and resources to the firefighters would be key. If there’s ever a fire and we had to evacuate the Valley, we’d only have two or three roads. Emergency service people want to keep the rail line in because that provides another way to move people out of here. There are a lot of reasons behind [No on Measure D] that make sense.”
Clark reiterates that she’s not against having the trail.
“Both sides want the trail,” she says. “We’re just saying that it makes sense to have both trail and rail.”
More on No Way Greenway at nowaygreenway.com.
HOW TO VOTE ON MEASURE D
All ballots must be in by the end of the day on June 7. For all the current election information, voting options and voter registration, visit the Santa Cruz County Elections Department at votescount.us.