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Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line

The 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line is a continuous transportation corridor offering tremendous potential for new mobility options for residents and visitors alike. The rail line is designated as active and spans the county from Davenport to Watsonville, running parallel to the Highway 1 corridor and the coast, and connecting into state and other regional rail lines in Pajaro.

This important transportation corridor is within one mile of more than 90 parks, 40 schools and over half of the county’s population (per census blocks). Construction of the rail line from Santa Cruz to Watsonville was completed in 1876.  In October 2012, the RTC took ownership of the line using voter-approved rail system expansion funding (California Proposition 116), bringing this transportation resource into public ownership to increase transportation options.

Rail Transit Service Studies

Could passenger rail transit service work in Santa Cruz County? 

The Rail Transit Study evaluates the feasibility of adding public transportation service on the rail line between Santa Cruz and Watsonville and next steps. The study includes: ridership projections, capital and operating cost estimates, varying service scenarios and technologies; and information on integration with other rail corridor uses and other transportation services.

Potential Transportation Uses of the Rail Corridor

The rail corridor was purchased using $11 million from the voter-approved Proposition 116 (Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act of 1990 — California Public Utilities Code Section 99600 et seq.) which stipulates that the rail line be used for “rail projects within Santa Cruz County which facilitate recreational, commuter, intercity and intercounty travel. Potential uses include the following:

As stated in Measure D, which was approved by more than two-thirds of Santa Cruz County voters in November 2016, “8% of Measure Revenues will be used for preservation of the Rail Corridor infrastructure and analysis of its future potential use to better serve Santa Cruz County residents and visitors. Projects include  analysis (including environmental and economic analysis) to answer important community questions about possible future transit and other transportation uses of the corridor.”  In December 2016, the RTC board reviewed contractual, environmental, financial, legal, timing and other considerations of rail line uses and reaffirmed the direction in Measure D to expedite the analysis of the rail corridor uses (full item on webpages 54-71).

Coastal Rail Trail

Planning for the Coastal Rail Trail and its guiding Master Plan was conducted over a multi-year process with much public and stakeholder input. The Master Plan was adopted in public meetings by the RTC and all coastal jurisdictions through which the trail will traverse. The Coastal Rail Trail will act as the spine of a broader Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network which is a 50-mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway along the coast of Santa Cruz County, from the San Mateo County line in the north to the Monterey County line at Pajaro. With the intent to maximize transportation options into the future, the adopted rail-with-trail project (also referred to as the “rail trail” by the Santa Cruz County community) was designed to coexist with existing and potential future transportation uses which could include train or transit services.. This configuration has proven to be successful in many other rail-with-trail projects across the nation and provides safety features for both  train operations as well as bicycle and pedestrian active transportation options.

Coastal Rail Trail Projects Under Way
Roughly 40% of the rail-with-trail (or “rail trail”) project, or close to 13 miles, is now underway  (first final design/engineering and environmental clearance, then construction) in the north coast, west side of Santa Cruz, Live Oak, and Watsonville. Approximately $18 million in public funds and $6 million in private funds have been secured to implement projects. The RTC will also be drafting a 5 year expenditure plan for Measure D rail trail spending and will be allocating approximately $15 million within the next 5 years and $85 million total over 30 years for the trail project.

Rail Improvement Efforts

Measure D logoAs owner of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line on  behalf of the community, the RTC hired a short line operator to operate freight and recreational rail service and maintain the rail line.  In addition, the RTC is partnering  with individuals and groups to reduce trash and graffiti on the line.  Voter-approved Measure D includes a directive to investigate short and long term options for maximizing this transportation resource.
Measure D is a ½-cent, 30-year sales tax measure passed in November 2016 by over 2/3 of Santa Cruz County voters.

Rail Structure Upgrades
As part of the 2012 purchase agreement between the RTC and the previous property owner, Union Pacific, $5.3 million in funding was set aside to upgrade structures on the line. Construction work on four timber and steel trestles, including the La Selva Beach Railroad Trestle, was finished in 2015.  Voter-approved Measure D also includes funding to maintain and repair rail corridor infrastructure. The short-line railroad operator is currently responsible for basic rail track and equipment maintenance.

Freight Service
Rail freight service is currently provided by Progressive Rail, doing business locally as St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Co., to a number of companies for commodities such as construction and agricultural products. Progressive Rail is based in Lakeville, Minnesota and has several other short line railroads with operations throughout the United States.

Current Passenger Rail Operations
Big Trees Railroad operates seasonal and special event recreational service between Roaring Camp in Felton and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a route which includes a portion of RTC-owned line. In the future, passenger service may include expanded recreational service, as well as intercity and public transportation service.


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