SANTA CRUZ — After a decade of dreams, delays and even denouncements, the 32-mile Branch Rail Line finally is land in public hands.
With escrow on the $14.2 million purchase expected to close, the transfer from Union Pacific to the county's Regional Transportation Commission clears the way for the return of local passenger rail and lays the groundwork for a future cross-county trail, putting to rest years of debate.
"It's a huge milestone, and the way we look at it we're getting close to the starting line," said Karena Pushnik, an RTC spokeswoman, saying the agency now can expand upon and detail its plans. "This opens up all of those options and opportunities."
County transportation officials saw the line as a golden opportunity to acquire an uninterrupted right-of-way through densely packed coastal communities. Soaring over high trestles and clinging to picturesque bluffs, much of the line has fallen into disuse and, in some spots, disrepair.
Critics have contended the purchase would be a financial sinkhole, but the county is expected to make a small profit under an operating agreement with Chicago-based Iowa Pacific. Others wanted to see rail traffic abandoned in favor of a trail, something the state, which largely funded the purchase, would not allow.
"We're very happy. We see it as a new era in the county's history," said Bruce Sawhill of the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail and Trail, who expected the purchase to go through years ago.
As part of the Regional Transportation Commission deal with Iowa Pacific, a holiday-themed train is expected to begin operating along a short stretch of the North Coast within a matter of weeks.
The company also sees growth potential for freight operation on the southern part of the line, bringing Pajaro Valley produce and other goods to market.
One significant piece of the acquisition is the ability to use the line for an adjacent bike and pedestrian trail, eventually connecting with Monterey County trails and forming the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail.
A draft plan on the Santa Cruz County portion of the trail -- expected to rely heavily on the Branch Rail Line -- will be released Oct. 25. A series of public meetings will follow.
"This is a real change in direction, which dovetails perfectly with the price of energy, with global warming issues, with reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled," said Micah Posner, who spent years working on the issue with the bicycle advocacy group People Power and who is now a candidate for Santa Cruz City Council.
To celebrate the acquisition, local transportation officials finally are moving forward with a long-delayed whistle-stop party. Several unexpected developments and delays could have derailed the purchase, but RTC Executive Director George Dondero, and especially Deputy Director Luis Mendez, never wavered from pursuing the acquisition.
Planned for Nov. 17, the party will include stops in Watsonville, Capitola, Live Oak and finally on the Westside of Santa Cruz, near a commercial section of Swift Street. Rep. Sam Farr D-Carmel, is expected to attend.
That event will be preceded Nov. 16 with a free Cabrillo College talk on Branch Rail Line history by local historian Sandy Lydon. Details on both events are being worked out.
While tracks on the northern and southern end of the line ready to go, repairs are needed along several other sections of track, with trestles in La Selva Beach and Capitola being of particular concern. That work is expected to begin sometime next year, Pushnik said.
Whether local passenger rail evolves into something more than a tourist train -- several of which already are operated by Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton -- remains to be seen.
Sawhill is hopeful, saying he thinks the line would be a good backbone for a light train or tram, particularly between Cabrillo College and UCSC, easily the two most popular public transit destinations in the county.