Trees, Rail, and Trail: A Balancing Act

Construction and trail

(L) Rail and trail construction underway at Bay and California (Segment 7, Phase 1)
(R) Completed trail with adjacent rail line near Almar and Mission (Segment 7, Phase 2)

Photos: Lisa Hochstein

Our trees are the lungs of our planet. Their great roots interconnect and allow them to communicate as well as host a diversity of living organisms essential for maintaining the health of our planet. The power of our forests to mitigate climate change by taking in and storing CO2 is amazing. But, like a body’s respiratory system that fails when exposed to lung-damaging smoke or gases, our trees are failing due to our extreme production of greenhouse gasses (GHG). In the name of development, we are not only producing excess emissions, but are also removing a critical number of trees. Like removing lung tissue, the result endangers our planet’s health. The global rise in temperature and other climate disruptions contribute to an exponential threat to our forests and all ecosystems.

In Santa Cruz County, our weather has grown progressively drier after over a decade of drought and fires. After the 2020 CZU Fire, mountain biking and walking though many of our forests felt different. Air drafts were warmer through the trees and moisture levels were lower. More concerning, however, was that the vibrancy of the trees was noticeably diminished. Looking back over 25 years of hiking, biking, and running through our local nature preserves and redwood forests, it is clear that trees are struggling.

Though our redwoods have provided a welcome escape from increasingly hot days, the life-giving fog and moisture that sustains our local forests has been diminishing each year (Sempervirens). Our complex ecosystem, integral to the health of the redwoods and other local forest species, is rapidly deteriorating. If we do not halt temperature rise, we will lose our vital redwoods, oaks, madrones, and the habitat they provide for countless species. All human and non-human life on our planet is interdependent, and all life depends on this diversity.

Over 20 years ago, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), in partnership with community members and state and local representatives, took steps to purchase the rail corridor and develop passenger rail in Santa Cruz County. The California Transportation Commission (CTC) envisioned a future connection with the State Rail Plan Network, prioritizing rail as a less environmentally impactful way to move people from city to city. After the line’s purchase, engineers determined that it was possible to create a multi-use trail alongside the tracks, through the county’s most densely populated areas. Since 2014, work has progressed towards building a 32-mile segment of the 50-mile Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (MBSST) that will connect residents and visitors across our county and coast, from Watsonville to Davenport.

When the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line was completed over 100 years ago, it required significant investments in engineering, grading, drainage, and labor. Implementing zero-emission rail today on these existing tracks would require a small fraction of the resources needed to build a rail system from scratch. And the sum total benefit of rail would be significant. Rail is the most energy efficient and least environmentally damaging form of mass transit available to us. According to the 2022 Santa Cruz County Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, transportation currently makes up 70.4%  of our county's GHG emissions. Using the EPA’s GHG calculator, adding zero-emission light rail will reduce emissions by 1,482 metric tons annually—the equivalent of planting 24,500 trees and growing them to maturity, every year for 10 years. This huge reduction in transportation-related GHG is the most effective way to reduce our county’s total output and is achievable through the rail and trail project.

The majority of our community has repeatedly supported a 32-mile accessible public trail with rail service along the corridor. The “Ultimate Trail” (the RTC’s current name for the “trail next to rail”–in other words, the original MBSST plan approved in 2014), is designed to be, on average, 12 feet wide, running alongside the rail tracks. This option will accommodate both rail and trail users, compared to the 26-foot wide, multi-lane, trail-only option proposed by Greenway. The RTC has been under pressure to propose an alternate “Interim Trail” (recently redubbed the “Optional First Phase Trail”), which would either rip out the tracks and later rebuild them, or place platforms over the rails to create a trail. These latter two options would require railbanking, not likely to be approved by the Surface Transportation Board, and are expensive implementations that would make it effectively impossible to ever have rail in the future.  

Building any ADA compliant, fully bikeable project able to withstand both weather and long-term wear by users (walkers, runners, people in wheelchairs, on bikes and skateboards) requires a significant impact on the local terrain, including adding asphalt paths, retaining walls, and tree removal. Unfortunately, simply putting down gravel or decomposed granite, as some have proposed, will not provide us with an ADA compliant trail accessible to most community members. 

But we acknowledge that there is a real cost: for many of us who now walk along the tracks, enjoying the forested corridor, any construction that will allow greater access to this corridor will involve the destruction of an existing, vibrant urban habitat, and will indeed change its look and feel. We need to acknowledge not only our feelings of sadness at this loss, but also the very tangible loss of hundreds of our carbon sequestering trees. 

The worsening consequences of climate change require that we calculate and mitigate the sum total emissions created by each project that we approve. When a tree is cut down, simply replacing it with one new tree does not address the overall impact of its removal, nor does it take into account that the amount of carbon a mature tree takes in and stores each year is far greater than younger trees. While replacing trees is helpful, we need to think about re-growing healthy forest ecosystems and reducing our total environmental footprint.  

We are not powerless to address the impact of removing trees, or the total impact of the Ultimate Trail. Working together as a community, we can determine the overall carbon load of the project, the number of trees we must plant to help remediate the loss, and ensure that replacement trees are planted in other areas of the county. Recognizing that saplings take up less CO2 than older trees, and the fact that it takes time for younger trees to reach their full carbon-absorbing capacity, a 1:5 replacement rate is desirable. The cost to plant and care for a replacement sapling until it is established, is about $1000. Through innovative tree-adoption programs, community members can support this effort. Planting trees along new surface street projects adds carbon-sequestering capacity, shade that helps cool the asphalt heat islands, new urban habitat for animals, and has the additional important benefit of traffic calming.

The greatest change we can make to protect our forests is to minimize our use of high GHG-emission transportation and move to biking, rail, busing, rolling and walking. Activating our rail and adding a trail allows us to significantly improve safe access to shopping, parks, schools, restaurants and more, and within 10 years, be able to travel up and down the coast and connect to other cities by rail. Connecting residents with a larger network of active and public transportation choices is a critical matter of equity, reducing the need for car ownership and increasing ease of travel through our county. Robust, equitable public transportation is a lifeline for many, including our essential workers, giving vital access to a better education, better jobs, and escaping poverty. Rail and trail also provides car-free access to local beaches, parks and community life.

According to EPA reports (EPA), GHG emissions produced by automobile use is not limited to CO2. (“A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. This assumes the average gasoline vehicle on the road today has a fuel economy of about 22.0 miles per gallon and drives around 11,500 miles per year. Every gallon of gasoline burned creates about 8,887 grams of CO2.” “In addition to carbon dioxide (CO2), automobiles produce methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) from the tailpipe and hydrofluorocarbon emissions from leaking air conditioners.” The emissions of these other gases are smaller in comparison to CO2, but their impact per unit is greater, (EPA) “…because they have a higher global warming potential (GWP) than CO2.” We currently have a unique opportunity to lower emissions of GHG and other toxins by prioritizing zero emission passenger rail along with a multi-modal trail. 

As we face the realities of a changing climate we need to assess the tradeoffs between an environmentally beneficial project and its environmental cost. We understand that many of these choices are difficult and require a generational perspective. A holistic, long-term approach that allows us to reduce our reliance on cars and choose active and public transit is necessary to our shared goal of reducing GHG emissions and caring for life on our planet.