Santa Cruz Invests Big in Trails Through $500 Million Transportation Measure

Posted 12/22/16 by Yamelith Aguilar in Policy, Building Trails

Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail route along a northern section of Monterey Bay | Photo courtesy Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail

Santa Cruz County becomes a trailblazer in California for their commitment to active transportation.

During the November 2016 election, Santa Cruz County proved its commitment to active transportation when two out of every three residents voted yes on Measure D, the 2016 Transportation Improvement Plan. This half-cent, 30-year sales tax provides roughly $500 million to Santa Cruz County for a comprehensive package to 1) improve Santa Cruz County’s transportation network through numerous transportation projects; and 2) fund sustainable alternative transportation efforts.

Measure D is a landmark initiative in the state of California, providing the highest rate of investment in walking and biking projects (55 percent of all measure funds) of the 11 county transportation measures put before California voters this November. It provides for investment in five project categoriesNeighborhood & Street Projects, Coastal Rail Trail, Highway Corridors, Transit & Paratransit and the Rail Corridor—and comes at a time when transportation funding has been dwindling due to decreasing state gas-tax revenues. 

Chart courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

“This is a game changer,” said Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Executive Director George Dondero in a Nov. 9, 2016, Santa Cruz Sentinel article about Measure D. “[It's] an incredible change in terms of what can be accomplished in this county for transportation projects, because we’re no longer totally dependent on outside funding sources. We have a local funding source now that’s locally generated and locally controlled ... .”

Measure D is a tremendous victory for the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail project, which is part of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail. The scenic trail project is slated to receive 17 percent, or approximately $85 million, to fund the construction of multi-use trail sections, new bike and pedestrian bridges, lighting and security features, maintenance, safety, storm and drainage management, and the leveraging of matching state and federal grants for the full coastal rail-trail network.

When complete, the 32-mile Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail will provide a car-free, flat and scenic route for biking, walking and wheelchair use for people of all ages and abilities, including school children, commuters, families and seniors. The paved trail will enhance safe biking and walking for the 260,000 county residents as well as some 3 million annual visitors. The rail-trail—which will form the main spine of the Santa Cruz County section of the 50-mile Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail network—is a critical connection for the community, traveling within 1 mile of 44 schools, 92 parks and 50 percent of the county's population.

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A residential section of the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail route in California | Photo courtesy Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail

"Investing in the Coastal Rail Trail will result in multiple benefits for Santa Cruz County," said Laura Cohen, director of Rails-to-Trail's Conservancy's (RTC's) Western Region. "It will not only be a critical community connector for local trips and commuting, but will also serve as a destination trail along one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in California."

RTC has been a long-time vocal supporter of the rail-trail project and serves as a member of the Coastal Trail Working Group convened by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC). RTC also recently provided technical assistance to the SCCRTC in 2015 as they began the implementation of the project, advising on best practices for coordinating efforts among county and city agencies as well as how to save taxpayer dollars by using volunteer labor and donated materials.

Through a Doppelt Family Trail Development fund grant, RTC assisted the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT) (which is supported by its fiscal sponsor, Ecology Action) in their public education campaign to support  the Coastal Rail Trail. FORT utilized the funds to increase public outreach efforts with a focus on presentations to environmental, community and civic groups. FORT and Ecology Action were also key advocates for ensuring the passage of Measure D.

“Our … public outreach highlighted the health, environmental and quality-of-life benefits of this scenic rail-trail that connects Santa Cruz County coastal communities,” said Piet Canin, vice president of transportation for Ecology Action. “The rail-trail will be a great public place for locals as well as visitors from the region, state, country and world.”

In addition to the 17 percent for the Coastal Rail Trail from Measure D, two other project categories include specific funds for bicycle- and pedestrian-related improvements.

Farm fields along the north coast of Monterey Bay along the rail-trail project route | Photo courtesy Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail

Complete Streets transportation projects to repair the local roadway system make up 30 percent, or approximately $150 million, of the total funds. The distribution of funds is dependent on population, lanes, miles of roads and sales tax generated.

Twenty-five percent, or approximately $125 million, of the total funds will improve safety and traffic flow, funding car-free highway overcrossings and other safety programs. This includes $7 million for two new bicycle and pedestrian bridges over Highway 1 in Live Oak and Seacliff.

The half-cent sales tax is effective on April 1, 2017, with anticipated first receipts by summer 2017. The SCCRTC leads the administration and fiscal systems for the measure and will develop agreements with fund recipients, safeguards and oversight systems.

The success in Santa Cruz County continues to underscore California’s ongoing commitment to improving active transportation, recreation and community connections. RTC continues to advocate for more investment in trails and biking and walking infrastructure in the state and will provide future updates as they become available.

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