Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT) was founded in 2002 to promote the idea of a combined use of the rail corridor: adding a trail alongside passenger rail to allow for a variety of non-automotive transportation options. This idea was first put forth by Pat Dellin, Deputy Director of the RTC in the early 1990s, inspired by similar installations in Europe. The rail+trail idea was taken up by People Power, now known as Bike Santa Cruz County, which founded FORT to organize citizen support.
The idea of reintroducing passenger rail in Santa Cruz County had been promoted and studied ever since the 1980s, both by citizen groups and government agencies. The last “Suntan Specials” ran in 1959. Various proposals were floated to use the coastal rail corridor or the old route through the Santa Cruz Mountains to Los Gatos. These proposals were hampered by lack of ownership of the coastal corridor, (owned by Southern Pacific, then Union Pacific) by legal hurdles involved in re-creating a right of way in the mountains that had been sold off, and by the financial and infrastructure setbacks of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.
Creating the Vision:
In recent decades, the primary use of the coastal rail line had been for freight by Southern Pacific, then Union Pacific, from the cement plant at Davenport 32 miles to the junction with the rest of the national rail network at Pajaro Junction. As demand for cement declined and the railroad company concentrated on more profitable long-haul routes, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) saw an opportunity to purchase the line. FORT stepped in to organize a very well attended symposium in 2006, bringing in rail and trail experts from around the country to make the public aware of the benefits of owning the line.
Acquisition of the Line:
Over the next six years, FORT campaigned tirelessly to promote the acquisition of the coastal corridor, often encountering heavy resistance. The first significant success was lobbying the RTC over 2008-9 to vote unanimously to acquire the rail line for $14.2 million in 2010. In 2011, FORT turned its attention to the California Transportation Commission (CTC), including sending an Amtrak railcar full of supporters to Sacramento for a crucial vote by the CTC to allocate Prop. 116 passenger rail funds at the last possible moment before they expired. Our advocacy brough $10.2 million to the county to help pay for the ROW, with the proviso that we would use it for passenger rail in addition to the trail. Once the CTC vote was secured it took an additional year to close the deal and secure a rail operator. FORT and RTC celebrated with a party in November 2012 that included free demo train rides up the North Coast.
Building for the Future:
After the acquisition of the line, the real work began in developing options for transportation the rail corridor. FORT worked with the RTC to develop Measure D, a 2016 tax measure that would provide about $120 million for rail and trail projects on the corridor in addition to other transportation projects in the County. FORT’s support of the measure was crucial to its passing.
In 2019, FORT was there when the community celebrated the groundbreaking of the first segment of the Rail Trail, a cantilevered bridge across the San Lorenzo River near the Boardwalk. This segment, which provides a crucial transportation link, opened in 2020. . FORT also continues to promote construction of segments of the Rail Trail with the goal of building the entire 32 mile trail in 10 years.
FORT also continues to research and promote rail solutions for the corridor, in particular battery-electric and fuel-cell options that offer quiet, efficient, and low-infrastructure cost solutions to our County’s vexing north-south transportation challenges.
Introducing Coast Connect:
Building on our advocacy to transform the rail corridor, Friends of the Rail & Trail announce the launch of a new campaign to transform the County’s transportation system for the future.
The completion of the rail and trail is an important first step toward a broader transportation vision. Through the Coast Connect campaign, we are advocating for a more comprehensive, modern, and efficient transportation system that connects everyone in Santa Cruz County reflecting our shared values of inclusion, equity, sustainability, and economic opportunity for all.
The Coast Connect vision extends the promise of the Rail & Trail as a north to south transportation backbone, with an expanded range of both public transit and personal mobility options connected to this backbone like ribs including safe routes for walking and bicycling, pulsed bus routes, and evolving ride sharing options. Coast Connect is about economic vitality, greenhouse gas reduction and efficiency for all who live, work, visit and play here in Santa Cruz County.