Rail right of way – Current and future uses

Editor's note: Today's Street Smarts column, about the future uses of the rail right of way, was submitted by Karena Pushnik, senior transportation planner with the Regional Transportation Commission for Santa Cruz County. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, also known as the RTC, recently acquired the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, adding into public possession this north-south transportation corridor from Watsonville to Davenport. It will take time to transition this facility from private to public use. This is considered an active rail line under federal and state jurisdiction and the rail service operator, Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, owns an easement over the entire length for freight service; therefore, any public use must accommodate any federal and state railroad safety requirements. Community access will occur as passenger train, trail and other transportation options are considered and developed. Improvements to the corridor to accommodate walkers and bicyclists have not yet been made. Therefore, similar to other public transportation facilities such as freeways, bicyclist and pedestrian use is currently not allowed, mainly for safety reasons. Community participation in reporting suspicious or criminal activities by trespassers will help preserve this valuable asset. Future plans include freight and passenger rail service, and a bicycle and pedestrian path within the corridor alongside the train tracks. Last year, the RTC released a Draft Master Plan for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network, which includes the rail trail as the system’s spine. A final Master Plan – including refinements based on public comments – will be available later this year. The plan divides the network into distinct segments that can be constructed incrementally over time as funding becomes available. Other places have successfully developed rail and trail systems, incorporating design features to safely separate uses. The RTC acquired the rail corridor to preserve it and to explore and develop strategies to maximize transportation use within this key 135-year old cross-county transportation corridor. Funding used for acquisition was designated by state voters to facilitate passenger rail service and the California Transportation Commission required initiation of passenger rail service within the corridor as a funding condition. As a condition of sale, the RTC is pursuing improvements to the trestles along the line. Bids are due in early August and work is expected to take place over the next two years. During some of this time, portions of the rail line will be impassable for trains. Freight rail shipments for agriculture, building supplies, and biofuels will continue to take place in the Watsonville and Pajaro portions of the line. Please have patience. The rail corridor has served the community for 135 years; plans are underway to make the most out of it for public use well into the future. To receive information on rail and/or trail projects, please sign up for RTC’s enews at http://sccrtc.org/about/esubscriptions/.
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