SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KRON) — One Santa Cruz County supervisor said he’d rather be “hit by a meteor” than debate Measure D again. A local newspaper publisher said he’s losing personal friends. Neighbors’ flower gardens are divided with “Yes” and “No” yard signs.
On June 7, Santa Cruz County residents will vote on its most controversial ballot measure in recent history: Measure D, also called the “Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative.”
Civil debates on social media turned uncivil leading up to Primary Election Day as both sides passionately argued about what’s best for this beach-loving slice of California.
“This debate has devolved into name-calling and demonizing people,” District 1 county supervisor Manu Koenig said.
District 3 county supervisor Ryan Coonerty wrote on Facebook, “I’d rather be hit by a meteor than talk about the Rail-Trail again.”
The vote’s outcome will decide the future of a 32-mile-long coastal corridor through Watsonville, Aptos, Capitola, Santa Cruz, and Davenport. The path winds along tranquil sloughs, beautiful beaches, and stunning landscapes.
Decades have passed since the last train chugged along the corridor’s historic tracks.
Measure D asks on the ballot, “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?”
The wordy and confusing question is essential asking residents to vote “Yes” if they want the corridor to become a wide, scenic path for walking and bicycling without a train, and vote “No” if they want a train too.
Coonerty explained in Lookout Santa Cruz, “Ten years ago, the Regional Transportation Commission purchased the rail line, a 32-mile corridor from Watsonville to Davenport, for $14.2 million. Since then, county and city leaders, planners and citizens have spent untold hours — and hundreds of thousands of dollars (potentially millions, depending on how you count) — studying transportation options in the corridor. We’ve exhaustively debated whether to provide transit and a trail, or to cover the tracks, as Measure D proposes, to build a larger trail.”
Over the weekend, former California governor Jerry Brown threw his support behind “No on D.”
“Measure D aims to tear out historic railroad tracks, killing the possibility of carbon free, electric train service in Santa Cruz County. That is really a bad idea, given the congestion on Highway 1 and the increasing danger of greenhouse gasses from more and more cars. Measure D is bad for Santa Cruz and bad for California,” Brown said.
“No on D” supporters say removing the tracks and the possibility of a train would be a disservice to future generations’ transportation options, as well as ignores south county residents who sit in traffic jams along Highway 1 daily. The type of train “No on D” envisions is an eco-friendly electric light passenger rail.
“Yes on D” supporters’ main arguments are: Restoring the old train tracks is too expensive to ever become reality, the corridor is not wide enough in many sections for both a train and a greenway, cyclists desperately need a safe bike path away from traffic, and a greenway will encourage outdoor exercise for locals and tourists alike.
Growing Up In Santa Cruz newspaper publisher Brad Kava wrote that while “No on D” includes a bike path, “it’s a very thin path with all the aesthetics of a fenced-in prison yard.”
Kava said there are about 20 trestles and crossings that are a century out of date.
“They will not only take hundreds of millions of dollars to fix, but there is no room for an adjacent bike path,” Kava said.
Supervisor Koenig wrote in a Lookout Santa Cruz op-ed, “Voting no on D will not magically generate the $1 billion needed to build a train.”
“Our standards today don’t allow us to steamroller salamanders or shoo off nesting bald eagles. Climate change eroding the cliffs at Manresa and raising sea level in the Watsonville sloughs will not make things easier. Perhaps, with focus and a light touch, we can restore the corridor enough to walk and ride a bike,” Koenig wrote.
Local environmentalists are split over the measure.
The Sierra Club endorsed “No on D.”
Gary Griggs, a UC Santa Cruz earth sciences professor, said he supports “Yes on D.”
“I’m a proponent of projects that are feasible and fundable and that are good for the environment. Let’s invest in zero emission, human-powered transportation that provides a healthier, safer, cleaner environment,” Griggs said.
In Measure D passes, the RTC will have a green light to cover the train tacks in a process called “rail banking.”
But as Coonerty points out, the timeline for building anything in Santa Cruz County is long.
“Roaring Camp Railroad, rail-trail advocates and others will likely argue that Measure D misled voters, and they will cite environmental and business reasons to maintain the tracks. They will tie up railbanking in those regulatory processes as well as the courts for decades. It took the City of Santa Cruz more than 20 years of controversy and litigation to build the Arana Gulch 1.1-mile bike path. Imagine the future battles over a 32-mile project,” Connerty wrote in Lookout.
Before casting a ballot, Koenig said people should go outside and walk the rail corridor’s train tracks.
“Don’t vote for or against D because others influence you or because you are attached to a long-held opinion. Go walk the corridor and decide for yourself,” Koenig wrote.