September 2021

Santa Cruz Passenger Rail

Show Me the Money

By Sebastion “Seb” Frey

Normally in this space I write about our local real estate market – but this month’s column focuses on what has become one of the most contentious pieces of real estate in Santa Cruz County: the Santa Cruz Branch Line Rail Corridor.
Nine years ago, in October of 2012, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (the RTC) completed the purchase of the rail corridor from Union Pacific Railroad. The corridor had fallen into disuse after the rail line’s sole significant customer, the Cemex cement factory in Davenport, shut down in May of 2010.

The tussle over the future of the corridor began even before the ink was dry on the final paperwork. The Santa Cruz RTC’s vision for the corridor is to provide passenger rail service alongside the Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Trail (MBSST) – the “rail and trail” which is fervently pushed by both RTC staff and local supporters such as FORT, the Friends of Rail and Trail. There’s an alternative vision for the corridor as a “trail only,” where it would be used only as a multi-modal walking/bicycling trail. The groups most actively supporting “trail only” include Santa Cruz County Greenway and Trail Now.

This past April, rail-and-trail advocates were dealt a major setback when the RTC failed to approve the business plan for the design, construction, and operation of a passenger rail system. At the same time, the commission rejected a motion to move forward with even a $17.1 million environmental review.

So why, after nine years of study, did the RTC suddenly slam the brakes on the project? While I am sure each of the commissioners has their own reasoning, in the end, it came down to funding.

Trail advocates, led by FORT, have repeatedly made public statements that the project will be paid for primarily through state and federal grants. In fact, numerous claims on social media have been made which state that the project is already fully funded! However, in fact, the project is far from fully funded and the RTC has not been able to clearly identify sufficient potential funding sources.

And therein lies the rub: there simply is not enough money to build and operate a passenger rail system in Santa Cruz County.

I have no doubt that the passenger rail project would indeed be funded in large part by federal and state grants – because there is no other way it could be built. However, “in large part” does not mean wholly funded. To obtain any such grant money, there would need to be local matching funds.

These local matching funds would need to come from a new tax or bond measure. Passing a tax or bond measure is a high bar, requiring a 2/3rds majority of voters. In the case of a passenger rail project in Santa Cruz County, there simply is not that level of community support.

For perspective, it’s helpful to look at the most recent effort to raise local funds for transportation projects: Santa Cruz Measure D. This sales tax measure was approved by voters in 2016, with 67.78% of voters saying yes. Measure D added a half-cent sales tax for thirty years, raising about $17 million annually for county-wide transportation infrastructure projects and maintenance improvements.

Measure D barely squeaked by, even though it provided and paved the way for urgently needed funding across the entirety of Santa Cruz County. Passenger rail, on the other hand, would be used by, at most, a few thousand riders per day and would only be practical for about 50% of the county’s population to ever consider using for transportation.

Given recent history, and the limited reach of the proposed rail system, it seems unlikely at best that 2/3rds of all county voters would approve funding for a project which will not serve county-wide needs.

Everyone agrees that Santa Cruz County has a transportation crisis, but there is no consensus on what to do about it. However, the RTC’s own studies show that establishing passenger rail service would do little to improve transportation in the county. Their research shows that passenger rail service would have a negligible impact on freeway commute times, vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions.

One question we’re always trying to solve for in real estate is to determine the “highest and best use” of property. The Appraisal of Real Estate, 13th Edition, defines highest and best use as:

The reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, appropriately supported, and financially feasible and that results in the highest value.

Whatever someone may feel about the merits of passenger rail in Santa Cruz, we simply cannot escape the fact that passenger rail is not a financially viable proposition. There is, at present and for the foreseeable future, no credible way to pay for it. Given this stubborn fact, nobody should expect to see passenger rail in Santa Cruz County any time soon.

Seb Frey was the 2019 President of the Santa Cruz County Association of REALTORS.  He’s been selling homes locally since 2003 and is the author of Get It Sold! (available at and stars on his own YouTube channel on SebFrey.TV


  • JackBrown

    Spot on Seb! I bought my house along the tracks thinking it would be great to see a train running through my back yard. Hard to believe, but I loved trains and how it brought me back to my childhood. It was only after seeing the non-viability of the train solutions and the proposed solution getting riskier and riskier that I turned against it. It would be great if we could have a safe/wide trail on the corridor and bus on shoulder on highway to show people there is a better way than being stuck in their cars for a long commute. The corridor as a wide trail would open up communites rather than fencing them off as we would with a train speeding through our communities. Watsonville would see little traffic relief as they would have to back track to the train station and most of south county would be out of reach of a station. with zero benefit for mountain residents. We need a solution for all. Improving Metro makes so much more sense.

  • Barry Scott

    The currently tied 6-6 vote among RTC Commissioners does not spell the end of rail transit planning or the search for funding, according to Supervisor McPherson and Executive Director Preston. Electric Rail Transit, including rapid wireless streetcars, remains the “Locally Preferred Alternative” solution for the rail corridor, approved 9-3 by the Commission this year.

    The cost for implementation is as yet unknown because of the current impasse but next steps would permit investigation of more affordable option that have yet to be done, all earlier studies having considered larger heavier types of rail vehicles. In fact, it wasn’t until this year that the RTC included the streetcar among options.

    Fortunately, the community will have a chance soon to “test drive” an example of clean battery powered transit. Learn more about the project at

    And remember: we’re building the trail now, we’re keeping the tracks, and rail plus connected Metro plus trails will create a robust transit and mobility network that hasn’t existed here in 100 years.

  • Larry Roth

    There are lot of assumptions in this editorial that bear closer examination. Let’s start with the usal one – the claim that trains won’t pay for themselves. You could make the same observation about buses or any other transit options. The truth of the matter is that we’ve been heavily subsidizing highways for decades, and if roads were expected to pay for their construction and operating costs, there are more than a few that would not be viable.

    The observation was made that “Passenger rail, on the other hand, would be used by, at most, a few thousand riders per day and would only be practical for about 50% of the county’s population to ever consider using for transportation.” The fact that half the county could make use of it isn’t enough? Or is the real question which half? Being able to get to work, shop, and obtain services without having to need a car for everything would be a real boost for some people. It would also be a plus for seniors and the diferently abled.

    Taking several thousand cars off the roads and needing that many fewer parking spaces is not a small gain – especially at peak traffic hours. Keeping the line available for freight service is also something to keep in mind. Rails can take trucks off the roads, cutting pollution and traffic congestion. County economic development plans should factor in keeping rail available for attracting businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint and meet specific needs. The transload business is something to encourage, making the transfer of freight between trucks and trains convenient and affordable.

    It’s also about more than just transportation. A reliable, safe, and frequent transit option can spark transit-oriented development, stimulating sustainable economic development along the corridor. It would give people an alternative to car culture. That can be a big plus for real estate values.

    The trail-only option has two basic flaws. It too will never pay for itself, and its contribution to solving the county’s transportation problems will be miniscule at best. Combining rail with trail will be a force multiplier – leveraging the advantages of both. More bang for the buck in other words.

    There’s one more big reason to support rail transportation: energy efficiency. Steel wheels rolling on steel rails need a fraction of the energy needed to roll rubber tires on pavement. Electric cars are being promoted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and rightly so. Transportation is where a third of US greenhouse gas emissions come from. But… if they are not powered by clean energy, they’re not really solving the problem. Clean renewables like wind and solar can address that – but you need 3-4 times as much capacity to match what rail can do. The Netherlands buys enough wind power to operate its passenger rail network; it can be done.

    The cost of investing in rail is nothing compared to the cost of not making that investment. What we’ve been doing for transportation is no longer working. We need what rail can do.

  • Graciela Vega

    Having a train traveling north through south and south to north county would support the local economy in both in our county. Service industry employees and professionals would be able to reach the urban centers quicker than sitting in traffic burning fuel in rush hour traffic.

    Providing an equitable solution with rail and trail is a must. It will allow for folks to travel quicker during the rainy weather without having to worry about foggy weather fender benders.

    By seeking grants we will be able to support and maintain our rail trail system for future generations.

  • Kurt Rosenberger

    There is only one option for the Santa Cruz branch line, and that is to keep the rails and build the planned bike path alongside it. People will try to convince you that railbanking is the solution, to preserve the ROW for a later date. The only problem is, when is that? What will be the metric for determining that we need to bring the tracks back and implement rail service? Isn’t that now? I hear a lot about how mass transit on the ROW won’t alleviate traffic on the highway, but what will? Busses? Bikes alone? Electric light rail carries three times as many people as a bus, last three times longer, and for a third as much energy. What light rail most definitely will do is get people off the back roads, such as Soquel Drive, Brommer and East Cliff. All of the people on these roads at rush hour are local commuters who live and work in the county and could be taking advantage of mass transit on the ROW. The funding will work itself out, but finding another 32 mile linear piece of land for moving people about the county will never happen again. If we are so shortsighted as to remove the only viable option for public transportation we have it will be gone forever and will stall any hope we have for progress in the county.

  • Neil Waldhauer

    I looked at business plans for Amtrak, CalTrain, California High Speed Rail and at the California Rail Plan. All of these propose service to Santa Cruz. None depend on local financing. I think we should let these agencies give us train service.

    If we want to tax ourselves and add local rail to these services, the we can hold a local referendum. If we keep the rail for future use, we can have service as early as 2022, according to the CalTrain business plan. I think it would be foolish to turn down this offer.

  • Cathy Marino

    I grew up in Santa Cruz County, born in Watsonville. I’m 5th generation native.

    I’ve seen our county grow, and our transportation options fail to grow to meet the demand of the burgeoning population. The failure to meet transportation needs are always due to cost…yes, even roads and highways are subsidized by taxpayers! Our real estate here is some of the most expensive in the nation.

    Another factor besides cost of real estate that pauses consideration of road/highway widening is geography. A particular example preventing highway widening is a nearly mile long section of highway 1 through Aptos, wherein the highway is a bridge crossing over Spreckels Drive. This has been referred to as “The Aptos Strangler” by Jarrett Walker, transit consultant and author.

    The most urgent factor to support Rail & Trail on our Rail Corridor (Which was acquired by our RTC in 2012 with the objective of increasing transportation options and opportunities, including high-capacity public transit in conjunction with bicycle & Pedestrian path) is the ability to increase our transit options without increasing & perhaps decreasing greenhouse gases.

    We have arrived at the age of quiet electric streetcars that offer level boarding, room for bicycles & wheelchairs, do not require “train stations” but instead stops like our bus system, and will be able to travel the 32 mile rail corridor between Pajaro and Davenport without being stuck in traffic. The rail corridor is within 1 mile of more than 80 parks, 25 schools, half the county population, runs parallel to the Hwy 1 corridor, and connects to regional and state rail lines. There is room on the (average width) corridor for an adjacent 12′ wide trail, and since bikes can be rolled aboard the streetcars it’s a great transit option for many.

    As a senior citizen, I am aware of the transportation and recreation benefits that the Rail & Trail will bring to the many seniors who live in facilities and senior housing, much of which is in close proximity to our rail corridor. Having used electric trams in my travels, I can vouch for the transportation freedom and ease of travel that they offer us.

    It is very concerning that Greenway and Trail Now are pushing to have mention of any rail transit option removed from our General Plan, and that they are also plugging “trail only” with no rail service, and possible abandonment of our rails!

    Easement access along the corridor is specifically established for rail service. If the rail were abandoned/removed, adjacent landowners will certainly initiate litigation to require return of the easement properties to the initial grantor parcels. This would begin years of expensive litigation, eminent domain procedures, and will put the public access to the corridor at risk.

    We are building portions of the trail now, leaving the rails, with possibilities of light electric rail transit open for the future. Let’s move forward into the future with Rail and Trail on our corridor.

  • Thomas Kellogg

    I fully support your view Seb. It is very frustrating to have an oportunity to build a bike path that could draw bike riders from all over and be a great resource for an alternative commute route. The railroad design intentionally avoids steep hills so transforming it to a bike path opens up the world to people who would not be willing to tackle steep hills but could ride on this path. There are many bicyclists that risk their safety daily and this path would provide a safe path for many.

  • Tina Andreatta

    “The ‘Coastal Rail Trail’ promises to be a highly valuable asset to the Santa Cruz County community for transportation, recreation, education, health, eco-tourism, coastal access, economic vitality, and other visitor-serving purposes. It will connect
    to neighborhoods, schools, parks, transit hubs, commercial and other activity centers.” – Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

    Eighteen miles of projects are in various stages of development and have been funded in full or in part.

    Rail transit has been arrived at by a scrupulous technical and democratic process, methodically ascertaining the “best & highest use” and all that is necessary to continue forward with ‘Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Coastal Rail Trail.’ It’s from our transportation commission and their highly vetted specialists, analysts, and engineers.

    Our community supports what our functioning governmental agencies have arrived at by these professional infrastructure transportation engineering experts:
    *Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission;
    *California Coastal Commission;
    *Department of Transportation – Division of Rail & Mass Transportation;
    *Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC);
    *Association of Monterey Bay Governments: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties (AMBAG);
    *Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI);
    *Caltrans: Division of Rail & Mass Transportation;
    *Interagency Technical Advisory Committee;
    and others.

    It should be noted this past April 2021 Watsonville’s City Council unanimously voted YES fund 5 more years of Coastal Rail Trail. Our Watsonville community is empathetic with their messaging to north county residents…don’t forget us. This is a social justice and an equity issue.

    Right now the Watsonville Pajaro Train Station is being renovated and connects to Salinas and Gilroy then onto the rest of the State Rail Plan. Caltrans has offered their strong financial support for rail transit.

    Most people driving Highway 1 are essential workers. As the service industry ramps up, this is only going to get worse. The number one concern of most people in this county is traffic. This is the only project in the county that will create an alternative way to travel North/South in the County that is desperately needed for essential workers. Voting against this project is telling South County essential workers that their time, sacrifice and work is not valuable and creates transportation redlining in our county.

    A bike trail doesn’t provide equity to south county. The truth is that a trail only and removal of the transit option would have the same effect as a giant border wall.

    According to Pew Research in 2019, “Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or people under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis.”

    There is no benefit to pausing this project, in fact pausing further threatens our ability to bring home federal dollars in the upcoming infrastructure bill. There is no other project that will have this big an impact on our County. Investing in public transportation is good for small businesses at each stop.

    They destroyed the rail between Santa Cruz and San Jose once Highway 17 was widened. Now we all wish we had those rails back. Traffic on 17 is a nightmare during commute times. And we all know what Highway One is like. Everyone tries to avoid it much of the day. Rail in Santa Cruz is planned to connect down to Monterey. And it is planned to connect over to San Jose by way of Watsonville to Gilroy. If we go along with the plan to rip out the rails, we’ll be an isolated community even worse than we are now.

    What makes sense is keeping rails you already have and putting them to use. It makes sense now, and the case only gets stronger as more times passes. What doesn’t make sense is the way you wave the rails away as though restoring them will be effortless in some unspecified future. We need what they can do now. Ebikes will not save you. Healthy exercise is not enough.

  • Barry Scott

    Seb, have the facts wrong when you write: “the RTC’s own studies show that establishing passenger rail service would do little to improve transportation in the county. Their research shows that passenger rail service would have a negligible impact on freeway commute times, vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions.

    The most recent two studies selected rail transit as the most beneficial in reducing vehicle miles traveled, VMO, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The shortest and most reliable travel times are provided by rail operating without traffic on the exisiting rail line. Voters should check the RTC pages for the facts.

    You go on to proclaim that “highest and best use” is of “property that is physically possible, appropriately supported, and financially feasible and that results in the highest value.”

    A realtor or developer’s mindest is that value comes with a dollar sign, but modern planners balance Environmental benefit and Equity with Economics and using the 3-Es criteria, aka 3-P (people, planet, prosperity), the rail transit with trail has been proven to provide the very highest return on investment.

    No major transit improvement can possibly be accomplished over the stretch between Watsonville and Santa Cruz sooner and with less effort than simply improving the existing active railroad. Service could begin within a few years over parts of the line, a full system operational in 5 or 6 years IF our county commits to it and Greenway gets out of the way. And the trail will be built at the same time, and sooner than any Trail Only plan.

    Everyone should plan to take a ride on the Coast Futura next month, to get a taste of what we would be throwing away if we don’t act soon to follow the science and the studies and the funding that all leads to a connected bus and rail transit network, with trails!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *