By Amelia Conlen, Director of Bike Santa Cruz County

Bike Santa Cruz County (formerly People Power) has advocated for the Coastal Rail Trail project since our inception in 1991. The trail will connect our county, providing a safe place to bike and walk and making riding a bike for daily trips a viable option for more county residents. The trail is our top priority project and has tremendous community support, and we are thrilled to see it moving forward.

So far, three Coastal Rail Trail segments have been funded; a 4,000-foot segment in Watsonville near West Beach Street, a 2.4-mile segment on the Westside of Santa Cruz, and a 5-mile segment on the North Coast that will run from the Wilder Ranch parking lot to just past Laguna Road. These projects should all be completed in the next three to four years.

Concurrently, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission has been studying options for passenger rail service, and recently released the Passenger Rail Feasibility Study. The release of the study has given rise to vocal opposition to passenger rail, with many claiming that removing the train tracks will ultimately benefit the trail project.

While the Transportation Commission has yet to determine whether passenger rail is economically feasible, Bike Santa Cruz County believes that removing the tracks would be bad for the trail and for people who ride bikes in Santa Cruz County.

Removing the tracks puts the trail on hold: Abandoning the train tracks, or even studying the option to do so, puts our relationship with the California Transportation Commission at risk.

The CTC provided funds to purchase the rail line specifically to provide rail service, and abandoning the tracks would likely mean having to return the funds. Abandoning a rail line also requires federal approval. This process could lead to years of bureaucratic wrangling, which would delay trail funding and construction.

Studying the option to abandon the tracks also raises questions about the RTC’s commitment to the Rail Trail Master Plan, since the plan is built around maintaining the option for rail service. Without an agreed-upon plan, how can we move forward with building the next segments of trail? The Coastal Rail Trail has great momentum right now, with more than 25 percent of the 32 miles of trail funded, another grant application pending and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County committed to raising millions of dollars for the project. Let’s move forward, not backward, and put our collective energy toward getting the rest of the trail built.

Preserving transportation options for the future: Whether or not passenger rail is feasible in the short term, we should keep this option open. One-third of Santa Cruz County residents do not drive, due to age, disability, income level or choice. These folks need convenient, safe and low-cost ways to get around. Traffic on Highway 1 will only get worse as our population grows, and eliminating an alternative option will make traveling across the county even more difficult. Bikes and passenger rail are complementary; rail service can extend the trips of people on bikes, and bikes make it quick and easy to travel between your home or workplace and the nearest train station. Giving people an alternative to driving will take cars off the road, encourage biking and walking trips, and reduce the headaches of people stuck in traffic on Highway 1.

Bike Santa Cruz County, together with Friends of the Rail & Trail, continues to work with local leaders to ensure the trail remains a top-priority project. The two groups raised $42,000 to support the Westside trail segment, and continue to support grant applications and advocate for additional trail funding.

This is your chance to get involved. Provide your input on the Passenger Rail Feasibility Study to the RTC by July 31 at sccrtc.org/rail, and stay tuned for discussions of this issue at upcoming commission meetings.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 27, 2015