Smart Growth Rolls Into Town On A Trolley

By Michael Park
Posted November 23, 2003

Plans for Recreational Rail in Santa Cruz County raise a number of issues for the community, and with future plans for a full-blown Smart Growth project, authorities have not disclosed all of the details – nor the consequences to the lives of county residents.


Aptos, California – Santa Cruz County residents are beginning to see the development of a large-scale Smart Growth project as the county’s Regional Transportation Commission moves forward with a railroad project proclaimed to be a tourist attraction.[1]

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) held a public meeting recently to review the Initial Study for their proposed “Recreational Rail” system and the public response wasn’t pretty.[2] There was a great deal of concern over the consequences of the plan. Further study makes it clear, though: there’s more to this trolley than meets the eye.

Many of the residents that attended the SCCRTC meeting to give comments on the Recreational Rail plan voiced concerns about the noise, pollution and other problems caused by trains passing near their homes several times every day. However, these same residents are probably unaware that there are even more drastic plans in place that will have lasting effects on their lives.

Right now, the plan on the table is a trolley system that will usher groups of tourists up and down the Santa Cruz coastline between Capitola and Seascape a few times daily. But documents from the transportation commission show that the trolley plan is merely a front. They’ve said there is no certainty it will survive financially[3], and are mostly concerned with securing up to $11 million in state funds to buy the right-of-way for the rail between Davenport and Watsonville.[4]

Right-of-way in hand, the commission can push forward with several different transit options. But these programs don’t come out of thin air, they’re not free, and they don’t come alone.

Not only will county residents have to fork over some dough (Commissioner Jan Beautz was forced to admit that funds from the state must be matched with local funds), but along with any number of mass transit options, there will be major changes to private property. Throughout the county’s General Plan and various transportation policy documents[5], transit options are always tied to land use changes – “residential intensification”, they call it.[6]

When planners change zoning regulations to form densely-populated clusters (called “employment villages”)[7], where people will live, work and shop in the confines of a small geographical area, then access to other parts of the county will be through the accessory mass transit system, by bicycle or by foot. Not by cars, though. Cars are bad.[8]

Residents that commute to other regions, such as Monterey or the Silicon Valley will be out of luck, since the transportation commission has said that widening Highway 1 (or any other provision for automobile traffic) is its absolute lowest investment priority.[9] “Get a local job and get out of your car,” is the smug answer to their pleas.[10][11]

Shifts in zoning will pack people into tight living arrangements and parking will be unavailable because of a concerted effort to “get people out of their cars” by charging fees (a “disincentive”)[12], so high-occupancy transit, once a pipe dream, becomes a “viable” option.

But since such changes in zoning and the following development of these villages may take years to sprout up, putting an interim mass transit system in (such as Bus Rapid Transit) will get people used to the whole idea – which makes future expansion of the system much easier. A transit system in place will make the residential clusters more attractive for potential buyers, and zones of concentrated housing will make ideal station stops for mass transit.[13]

Some people may wonder what’s wrong with such a community. After all, it’s the “ideal society”, with everybody smiling to his neighbor as he walks two blocks to work and the kids go to daycare[14] in the next “village” on the futuristic light rail system. But in order to accomplish this dream, planners will employ unjust techniques to take property from private citizens.[15] Inhabitants of the clustered villages will find themselves subject to intense regulation on their day-to-day activities.[16] And freedom of mobility will be severely restricted, since regulations will make transit options other than publicly-provided mass transit unaffordable and unthinkable.[17]

Santa Cruz County is experiencing a manufactured crisis. Planners are content to watch congestion build up on the highways until residents are screaming for a solution. All the while, the planning department is changing zoning regulations, working with private developers to build what could be called concentration camps, and the stage is set.

Residents who have wondered about the true goals of county officials are seeing their suspicions confirmed, but it’s not too late. By attending transportation meetings, documenting the actions of local officials, examining policy documents and informing others, accountability can be restored to local government and freedom of mobility can be secured.



[1] The plan is for a “Recreational Rail” system that will operate nine times daily “for 120 days during the tourist season.” (SCCRTC letter to residents, September 2003)

[2] “Neighborhood group wants trolley plan run out of town”, Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 8, 2003.

[3] “[It] is unclear how well this service will do and whether it will sustain itself as time goes on.” (Jan Beautz, letter to Californa Transportation Commission, October 17, 2003)

[4] Santa Cruz Branch Line Intra-County Recreational Rail Options: Preliminary Analysis, prepared at the direction of Hyde, Miller, Owen & Trust, March 2003.

The preliminary analysis states that “[while] various passenger rail schemes had been analyzed previously for the Branch Line, the Commission proposed to acquire the Branch Line for bicycle/pedestrian trail and corridor preservation purposes, without a specific plan for passenger rail use.” (page 4)

[5] General Plan (GP) – 1994; Local Agenda 21 (LA21) – 1997; Master Transportation Study (MTS) – 2003; Pedestrian Master Plan (PMP) – 2003.

[6] MTS, Section VI-1: Consistency with the General Plan, says “the General Plan Land Use Element … calls for residential intensification in the most urban areas of the city: the downtown and along major transportation corridors.” (page 56)

[7] MTS, Section VI-8: Transportation Demand Management, New Measures, Item 13: Employment Villages (page 189)

[8] cf. PMP, Section 6: “Limited Car Access & Car-Free Pedestrian Zones”.

[9] MTS, Section VI-10: Investment Priorities (page 207).

[10] “Study offers transit solution: Get people out of cars”, Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 25, 2003.

[11] Former Mayor Celia Scott said the solution to congestion near UCSC is “encouraging people to get out of their cars” (“Eastern-access foes gather signatures”, Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 18, 2003)

[12] MTS, Section IV: Sustainability Principles, Item 16 (mistakenly labeled 14). “The goal of managing travel demand is to effect (sic) travel behavior by shifting the travel choices to reduce vehicle congestion.” Disincentives to travel by car include “Increasing the cost and reducing the supply of free parking.” (page 36)

[13] MTS, Section VI-8: Transportation Demand Management, New Measures, Item 13, says “This strategy [the creation of employment villages] will allow increased public transit coverage and will create a greater market for vanpools and carpools. To be truly effective, however, it must embrace Smart Growth urban design practices to provide a mixed-use, pedestrian- and transit-friendly environment.” (page 189)

[14] ibid. “Retail and child care must be included…” (page 189)

[15] Berliner, Dana, “Public Power, Private Gain”, Institute for Justice (2003). Available online at

[16] “Losing your lease on freedom”, Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 16, 2003.

[17] MTS, Section VI-8: Transportation Demand Management, New Measures, Item 12: Raising the Cost of Using Private Automobiles. “[The] City can position itself such that charging for parking will be the norm…”

NB: The effectiveness of New Measures is measured by “the extent to which the strategy can reduce Single Occupant Vehicle (SOV) travel and encourage travel by non-SOV modes.” (page 174)

Smart Growth Rolls Into Town On A Trolley by Michael Park

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