The Santa Cruz County Branch Rail Line runs parallel to Park Avenue near Wesley Street in Capitola. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

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APTOS >> Staff of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission on Thursday outlined potential plans for a paved bike and walk trail where the railroad tracks now run on parts of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail line from Santa Cruz to Aptos. 

  • The maps and renderings showed an “interim” plan that aims to remove the train tracks and build a path on some narrow portions of the rail line.
  • On wider parts of the rail line, the tracks could remain and a trail would be built parallel to the tracks. 

Transportation commission staff said they hope to railbank the rail line. It’s a process that would allow the railroad to be converted to a trail. Rails could be put back on the line for potential future passenger rail service, transportation commission staff said.

interim rail trail Santa Cruz County

Regional transportation commission staff offered an interim plan to remove railroad tracks and pave a bike and walk path on narrow parts of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

No decision was made in Thursday’s transportation policy workshop. Transportation leaders will eventually choose whether to pursue:

  • An “interim” trail: The rail track would be temporarily removed and a trail would be built on the rail line on an “interim basis,” according to a staff report. The rail bridges would be repurposed. 
  • An “ultimate” single-build approach: The trail would be built next to the rail. New trail bridges would be built next to the existing rail bridges.
rail trail Santa Cruz County

Regional transportation commission staff showed images Thursday of an “ultimate” trail plan, above, to pave a path parallel to train tracks on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Transportation commission staff said they plan to present the trail plans to residents at public meetings this spring. They plan to produce an environmental impact report and do engineering work for the project as they apply for state or federal money for the project this year. 

Guy Preston, executive director of the transportation commission, said during Thursday’s meeting that the interim trail does not amount to a “trail only” plan although a paved path could cover parts of the rail line.

“We are really looking at this with the possibility of bringing the rail back if the interim trail option is exercised, to really stay true to the purpose of railbanking. That’s to preserve the corridor for future rail activation,” Preston said. 

Manu Koenig, vice chairman of the Regional Transportation Commission, said he supported the interim plan essentially because it would give residents a more efficient way to walk and ride on the rail corridor while the passenger rail plans continue. People already walk on the rail line, but it’s uneven and intended to be off limits in many places.

“There is a time value to building a trail that we can afford sooner, rather than leaving the corridor unused for the next 25, 35 however many years it’s actually going to take to get the funding together to build the ultimate rail and trail configuration,” Koenig said during Thursday’s meeting. 

“I want a five-bedroom house. But if I can only afford a two-bedroom house today, that doesn’t mean I should sleep under a cardboard box in the rain for the next 35 years. I’m going to get the house I can afford, and live as comfortably as I can, until I save up enough money to have my ultimate dream house. I think that’s exactly the same situation we’re looking at here on the corridor,” Koenig said. 

Koenig added that a Santa Cruz County sales tax hike likely would appear on a future county ballot to help fund the trail project and show state grant makers that the transportation commission has the money and capacity to build it. “We’re going to need a sales tax measure,” Koenig said at the meeting. “That is the only type of measure that this commission has the authority to put on the ballot.”

Koenig said after the meeting that he believes a sales tax will only be necessary for the “ultimate” approach of passenger rail alongside a path.

Some major potential projects presented Thursday included:

  • A cantilevered bike bridge to run parallel to the Murray Street bridge over the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor.
  • A paved bike and walk path on the Capitola trestle where the train tracks now run. 
  • Trail bridges where the train tracks run along the edge of Twin Lakes State Beach.
segment 8 9 10 11 12 rail trail Santa Cruz County

Bike and walk trails are planned along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from Aptos to Santa Cruz. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Transportation commission staff on Thursday outlined some more specific plans for five segments of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. 

Segments 8 and 9: Santa Cruz to Live Oak

A map shows segments 8 and 9 of the Santa Cruz County rail trail

A map shows segments 8 and 9 of the planned rail trail in Santa Cruz County. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

  • Segment 8 of the rail line starts at Pacific Avenue and ends at the San Lorenzo River trestle. 
  • Segment 9 starts on the east side of the San Lorenzo River trestle and ends at 17th Avenue in Live Oak. 

The two segments together span about 2.5 miles, said Nathan Nguyen, the city of Santa Cruz’s assistant director of public works, at Thursday’s meeting. 

Segment 8’s bikeway is nearly complete, including a widened bike bridge parallel to the San Lorenzo River trestle that was finished in 2019, Nguyen said. “Enhancements” like new paint are due on Segment 8, Nguyen said.

In Segment 9, the plan is to construct retaining walls near East Cliff Drive and upgrades at Seabright Avenue and Murray Street. City leaders plan a new right turn lane to be built from westbound Murray Street to Seabright Avenue to help relieve traffic, Nguyen said. 

On the Murray Street bridge, a cantilevered bike bridge is planned to be built similar to the one on the San Lorenzo River trestle, Nguyen said. 

From the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor to Leona Creek near Cable Court, Nguyen described “right-of-way constraints.” That lack of building capability essentially means that a trail cannot be built alongside the tracks. So the rails are expected to be removed and a 12-foot-wide trail could be built from Seventh Avenue east, Nguyen said.

Train tracks could be removed east of Seventh Avenue to build a paved path, transportation planners said. (Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission)

Train tracks could be removed east of Seventh Avenue to build a paved path, transportation planners said. (Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission)

A retaining wall is expected near Murray Street, and a “floating bridge” is planned near Leona Creek in Twin Lakes State Beach. (Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission)

A retaining wall is expected near Murray Street, and a “floating bridge” is planned near Leona Creek in Twin Lakes State Beach. (Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission)

Segments 10 and 11: Live Oak to Aptos

A map shows segments 10 and 11 of the Coastal Rail Trail in Santa Cruz County.
A map shows segment 11 of the Coastal Rail Trail in Santa Cruz County.

Segments 10 and 11 of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

  • Segment 10 starts at 17th Avenue and ends at 47th Avenue in Live Oak. It’s about 1.5 miles.
  • Segment 11 starts at 47th Avenue in Live Oak, goes through Capitola and New Brighton State Beach and ends at State Park Drive in Seacliff. It’s about 3.2 miles.

“Segments 10 and 11 have a number of challenges that will require engineering structures to address,” said Grace Blakeslee, senior transportation planner for the regional transportation commission, at Thursday’s meeting.

Blakeslee described a potential “steel truss pedestrian bridge that could be used over creeks or existing roadway crossings.” Such a bridge would limit environmental damage and potential problems with waterways, Blakeslee said. Alternatively, the railroad tracks could be removed and a paved path could be built on the rail line, she said. 

In areas such as Jade Street Park in Capitola, the rail line is too narrow to build a path parallel to it, Blakeslee said. So the tracks could be removed and the path could be built on the rail line. 

A “floating bridge” could run parallel to train tracks near Borregas Creek in Seacliff. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

A “floating bridge” could run parallel to train tracks near Borregas Creek in Seacliff. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Retaining walls and drainage are planned on areas of Segment 10. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Retaining walls and drainage are planned on areas of Segment 10. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

On other parts of Segment 10, retaining walls and drainage are planned for a path parallel to the train tracks. 

At the Capitola trestle, it’s not possible to build a cantilevered bridge parallel to the trestle because of problems with the trestle. The plan is to build the path on the trestle itself. 

A bike path is planned on the Capitola trestle. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

A bike path is planned on the Capitola trestle. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Segment 12: Aptos and Rio del Mar

A map shows segment 12 of the Coastal Rail Trail

Segment 12 of the planned rail trail crosses Highway 1 twice. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

  • Segment 12 starts at State Park Drive, crosses over Highway 1 twice, then finishes near Rio del Mar Boulevard and Sumner Avenue in Rio del Mar.

Several areas of Segment 12 are narrow and have “constrained” rights of way that essentially limit where trails can be built, said Sarah Christensen, a senior transportation planner for the transportation commission, at Thursday’s meeting. Many of these areas are expected to have retaining walls to accommodate the path. 

Aptos Village is expected to have a path that runs parallel to the train tracks. 

A paved path would run parallel to the train tracks in Aptos Village. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

A paved path would run parallel to the train tracks in Aptos Village. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

An interim plan would build a paved path on the current Highway 1 trestles. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

An interim plan would build a paved path on the current Highway 1 trestles. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

An “ultimate” plan would have paved and rail bridges at the two Highway 1 spans. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

An “ultimate” plan would have paved and rail bridges at the two Highway 1 spans. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

The two bridges over Highway 1 could have the tracks in the “interim” phase and a path built there. The “ultimate” long term plan would have two bridges at each of the Highway 1 crossings. 

Costs

The cost estimates for the “interim” plan is about $126 million. The ultimate plan is about $215 million. Transportation commission staff said the estimates are rough and likely to change. 

The staff plan to apply for competitive state grants and other money sources to help fund the project. Measure D, a 0.5% sales tax approved by county voters in 2016, is expected to bring $135 million for the trail in 30 years.

To participate: Two online public workshops are planned in mid-March to get input on plans for an interim trail and a single-build approach. Workshop details will be posted online.

Clarification: This story has been updated to add context to Manu Koenig’s statement about a potential sales tax. 

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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.