A proposed option for passenger rail was debuted in 2021. A photo shows the single train car on the rail line with the Capitola Pier in the background.

Chatsworth-based Tig/M LLC demonstrates ‘Coast Futura,’ an electric, light-rail tram in Capitola in October 2021. The type of vehicle for Santa Cruz County’s passenger rail project has not been chosen. (Coast Futura — Contributed) 

SANTA CRUZ >> More than 11 years after the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission took control of the aging Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, commission leaders are seeking input on a passenger rail project that could start construction in 2032. 

A conceptual plan for commuter rail is due in 2025 with potential station locations, travel times and cost estimates. Residents can chime in about what they want from a new commuter rail line online and at two open houses this month. Feedback is due March 4.

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“We want to explore what are the needs of the community and then develop the project to address those needs,” said Riley Gerbrandt, an associate engineer with the Regional Transportation Commission. 

A three-page “purpose and need statement” released Jan. 12 was the first step of building the conceptual report. It outlined problems like slow transit times in the county that the passenger rail project could address. The statement also lists some aspirations, such as reducing driving. It aims to be a rough guide to help design passenger rail service.

A map shows the 2020 Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis that included 11 potential stations for passenger rail along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line.

The 2020 Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis included 11 potential stations for passenger rail along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. A conceptual report due later this year may not have the same stations. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

A June 2020 Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis included 11 possible locations for passenger rail stations along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. The new conceptual report is expected to include more details and possibly different proposed station locations.

Transportation commission staff will host open houses to discuss the conceptual plan and gather input:

  • 6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at Ramsay Park Family Center, 1301 Main St., Watsonville.
  • 6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 13. at Live Oak Grange, 1900 17th Ave., Live Oak
  • A virtual open house is online. Its survey is due March 4.
A map shows the status of segments of the rail-trail project as of January.

A map shows the status of segments of the rail-trail project as of January. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Rio Del Mar Boulevard crosses the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line in 2021. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

The conceptual report

Transportation commission staff and Nebraska-based consultant HDR Engineering Inc. plan to create a conceptual report for the rail line this year. The report is expected to include preliminary environmental review and concepts for:

  • Travel times.
  • Station and maintenance facility locations.
  • Passenger rail vehicle types. 
  • Designs for a new trestle bridge over Soquel Creek. 

The report is also expected to draw possible paths for new train tracks within the corridor. The existing tracks are designed for slower freight vehicles, said Gerbrandt, the associate engineer. To accommodate faster rail, “you have to make the curves straighter in some portions,” he said.

A passenger rail line would also need areas of doubled track to enable rail cars to pass each other, said Sarah Christensen, senior transportation engineer for the Regional Transportation Commission.

Portions of the report are expected to be released this year and next year.

  • Summer 2024: The first round of conceptual plans are expected, including possible train vehicle types.
  • Fall 2024: Refined plans are expected, including possible locations for stations and maintenance facilities. 
  • Winter 2025: A draft concept report with preliminary cost estimates and environmental review is expected. A 2020 report estimated a $478 million price tag for construction of a commuter rail line.

At each stage, commission staff plan to collect community input, said Gerbrandt.

Construction on a passenger rail system is expected to start no sooner than 2032, authorities said. The Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs through Capitola in 2021. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file) 

The road to rail

Commission staff plan to start an environmental review this year that is expected to finish in 2027. Once state agencies approve the review the rail project would be eligible for more state and federal grants that could pay for construction, Christensen said. 

“We’re a small county, and we are not going to be able to afford this project on our own. So we’re going to be competing for grant funding at the state and federal level,” Christensen said. “We could plan and engineer all we want, but if we can’t get it funded, it’s not going to happen.”

The commission would likely propose a local tax measure to pay for operation and maintenance, she said.

Work on the final design is expected to begin in 2028. Commission staff would also begin securing a portion of the rail corridor right of way that is privately owned. Designing the new rail line will have challenges, including: 

  • Replacing or repairing more than 30 bridges along the rail corridor. 
  • Designing a system resilient to climate change.
  • Fitting tracks and the coastal rail trail into the rail corridor. The commission’s rail project includes 14 miles of the rail trail. Other agencies are designing and constructing other portions of the rail trail. For instance, Santa Cruz city staff has led work on Segment 8 near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

Around May 2032, the rail line is projected to begin construction. “That’s our plan, currently, but things can change,” said Christensen. “Hopefully we can hit that milestone.”

A map shows proposed passenger rail service on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

How we got here

Plans for a commuter rail line in Santa Cruz County have been decades in the making. The process has stalled at times from a lack of grant funding and opposing views of Regional Transportation Commission board members about whether to pursue electric rail or focus on building a walking and biking trail on the former freight line.

  • October 2012: The Regional Transportation Commission purchased the rail line from Union Pacific for $14.2 million. An $11 million state contribution hinged on development of passenger rail. If the corridor were to be developed for something other than rail, the money must be returned to the state.
  • December 2015: A Rail Transit Feasibility Study included possible train stations and preliminary estimates of ridership and cost.
  • January 2019: The Unified Corridor Investment Study laid out possible cross-county transportation projects. Commissioners unanimously approved public transit alongside a trail within the rail corridor.
  • June 2020: The Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis narrowed 25 potential transit options to four: bus, electric commuter train, electric light rail, and an autonomous train on wheels. It identified electric rail as the “locally preferred alternative.” 
  • June 2022: About 73% of Santa Cruz County voters rejected Measure D. It would have changed the Santa Cruz County General Plan to promote Greenway’s vision for a trail with two lanes of bike traffic, a divider and a walkway. 
  • August 2023: The commission approved a contract with HDR Engineering Inc. to complete the Project Concept Report.

Read more about the rail trail

Reporter / California Local News Fellow

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.