by TCA-SCC March 14, 2022
Does the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission own the 32-mile rail corridor?
Yes. The Santa Cruz Branch Line (SCBL) rail corridor is owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC), “an autonomous regional transportation planning created by the State of California in 1972 to carry out transportation responsibilities that cross city-county boundaries in Santa Cruz County.” Expending Proposition 116 and other state funding, the SCCRTC closed escrow in 2012 on acquisition of the SCBL – an intact, active rail line — from Union Pacific, thereby placing a third trans-county transportation corridor (in addition to CA Route 1 and the Soquel/Freedom corridors) into public ownership.
Did Santa Cruz voters approve the purchase of the rail corridor?
Yes. California Proposition 116 (Rail Transportation. Bond Act. Initiative Statute.), on the ballot on June 5, 1990, was approved statewide by 53% — and in Santa Cruz County by 60%. Proposition 116 specified funding to be allocated to the SCCRTC for rail projects as follows: “Eleven million dollars ($11,000,000) shall be allocated to the Santa Cruz County Transportation Commission for the following: (a) Intercity passenger rail projects connecting the City of Santa Cruz with the Watsonville Junction. (b) Other rail projects within Santa Cruz County which facilitate recreational, commuter, intercity and intercounty travel.”
What is the Measure D (Santa Cruz County Greenway Initiative) that will appear on the June 7, 2022, Santa Cruz County ballot?
Measure D calls for amendments to the Santa Cruz County General plan that will remove almost all language related to planning for passenger rail in the county, replacing it with language that, instead, emphasizes planning for a recreational trail – a “Greenway” — that will require removal and replacement of the rail tracks with a wide paved trail (2 two-way lanes) that includes one dedicated lane for bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other recreational devices, and another line just for pedestrians
What happens if we vote yes on “Greenway”?
A yes vote will put a hard stop on current Coastal trail construction per plan of record
A yes vote will delay trail construction by up to 10 years, to see. To see the progress that would be stopped, please visit https://sccrtc.org/projects/multi-modal/monterey-bay-sanctuary-scenic-trail/
A yes vote will kill all future possibility of electric passenger rail or freight service
A yes vote……
The 32-mile Santa Cruz County Coastal Rail Trail, which is part of the master-planned, environmentally reviewed Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (MBSST), has taken almost a decade to get fully approved, as it impacts multiple jurisdictions, different cities, and counties. Requiring that the existing rail tracks be removed from the SCBL and replaced by a wider trail,Greenway’s trail-only scheme will require all new plans and approvals, a new EIR, and expensive environmental mitigation to ensure the safe removal of toxic railbed soil – factors that could delay trail construction by up to 10 years. And the price tag for all of this work would not come cheap: the SCCRTC’s 2019 estimate for a trail-only “greenway” was about $252 million.
The plan of record: “Greenway” Redo!
Segment 7A – The Westside of Santa Cruz trail has transformed the way people are moving around the westside
Segment 8 – The San Lorenzo River trestle came ahead of schedule and under budget, it won several designs
Segment 18A – This segment in Watsonville connects several slough trails
Designed and fully funded
Segment 5 – This segment is on the north coast, it is designed and fully funded, and construction is scheduled to begin in 202
Designed and out to bid
Segment 7b will go from Bay to the Wharf. It is designed and approved
In environmental review and design
Segments 8,9,10,11 from Seabright to State Park Drive. These segments are under environmental review. Multiple agencies are working together
What is railbanking?
Railbanking is a four-decades-old, federally legislated procedure created with the intent of preserving freight rail rights-of-way on existing rail corridors while those corridors are being used for an “interim” (implying “temporary”) use other than rail – generally as an “interim” recreational trail. But railbanking has not proven to be a reliable way to preserve rail corridors for future rail use. Indeed, among well over 1,000 corridors that have been railbanked over the last forty years, only one percent of these “interim” conversions has been restored to rail use. People on both sides of this debate agree that if Measure D, the Greenway Initiative, passes, the practical impact of this new planning policy, if adopted by the SCCRTC, would be to end the potential for passenger rail service on the corridor for the foreseeable future – most likely, forever.
What is the process of railbanking?
For a rail line to be railbanked, the active freight operator on a rail line must first file for abandonment of the line with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). If railbanking is desired, and the active freight operator will not file for abandonment, a third party may file for something called adverse abandonment, which, if approved by the STB, would accomplish the same thing as direct abandonment by the freight operator. As the local active freight operator on both the Felton Branch Line and the Santa Cruz Branch Line, Roaring Camp can act to block abandonment efforts and railbanking. This is why the RTC was recently considering “adverse abandonment” of Roaring Camp’s Felton Line, forcing removal of Roaring Camp’s federal protections and potentially threatening their ability to continue doing business.
Why is “Greenway” calling for railbanking?
In order for a “Greenway” interim trail to be feasible in the Santa Cruz County rail corridor, the tracks would have to be removed. For that to be possible, the rail line must be railbanked. If the line cannot be railbanked, the Greenway trail-only scenario will not be feasible.
Why is this maneuver deceptive?
It is deceptive because “Greenway” claims that we can rebuild the rail in the future after the tracks have been removed, BUT at the same time the “Greenway” measure also calls for removing all passenger rail references in the Santa Cruz County General Plan. With rail references taken out of the County General Plan, the RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) is unable to plan for rail or apply for rail grants and funding.
As an additional point of reference, only in 1 percent of these railbanking conversions has rail service ever been restored to the right of way.
Is Railbanking necessary to continue building the current rail and trail?
No, we don’t need to railbank any part of the corridor if we continue with the plan of record. The RTC owns the 32-mile corridor and has the rights-of-way (ROWs) and property easements necessary to continue building the Coastal Rail Trail.
This Coastal Rail Trail is one of our biggest public assets in Santa Cruz County. Other communities in California and in the US are prioritizing public rail transit. Ironically, we have the tracks and are debating their removal!
“Greenway” says railbanking is necessary to put in a trail where the rail line exists.
Untrue. The RTC can negotiate or buy the easement for the trail using eminent domain, which it has done quite successfully for the trail near Davenport.
Why are people in favor of “Greenway”?
-They want a dedicated fast lane for biking and other fast recreational devices
-They say people won’t take the train
-They say people will ride their e-bikes instead of taking the rail
-They’re more likely to purchase an electric vehicle in lieu of riding public transit
-Some have houses or property along the rail line
-They say they prefer the Metro bus option for public transit
Why is it so important to keep rail as an option?
-The rail trail is the only other transportation corridor option in Santa Cruz County to alleviate traffic congestion on Highway 1
– It is a critical option for South Country residents who must commute to Santa Cruz, where most of the education and job opportunities are. Rail travel is much faster, especially during high commute times. Estimated travel time by rail is 40 minutes from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, instead of 90 minutes in traffic.
-It is a social justice and equity issue. We need alternative modes of transportation for those of us who are not able to purchase a vehicle or for those of us who simply cannot drive, for the elderly and for people with disabilities who won’t be biking or hiking the 32 miles.
-More than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in our county are from the transportation sector. We need to reduce emissions urgently to meet the state’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Rail transit is a viable option.
– We will not have enough ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) infrastructure and ZEV vehicles adoption by 2045 to meet the greenhouse gas reduction necessary to achieve the net zero goal.
-Rail travel is one of the safest modes of travel.
-Freight rail is accelerating everywhere: it is the environmental alternative to trucking. Rail can bring in cars, heavy equipment, commercial goods, and groceries, and ship Santa Cruz County’s agricultural produce out to buyers. Quiet, efficient, economical electric freight is already operating in the US, and it is the wave of the future.
-It takes a single gallon of gas to move one ton of freight 500 miles. Rail is the most effective way to move people and goods using the least GHG.
-The Coastal Rail Trail is also part of the larger Bay Area rail network vision. The plan of record fits into the statewide rail plan vision connecting Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo, to San Jose via Gilroy and to Hollister and further.
Why not use the Metro buses instead?
Buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars and contribute to Highway 1 congestion and GHG emissions. Building more standard lanes on the highway won’t help that.
Will we have enough ridership?
Yes! Successful transit needs to go where population densities are highest, and we have urban density between Santa Cruz and Capitola akin to some areas of Oakland. Additionally, half of our population lives within ½ mile of the track, which includes 92 parks and 44 schools.
Tourists will also take advantage of the rail and trail, and this will reduce overall congestion on Highway 1 and on Mission Street, especially on those glorious summer weekends.
Why does “Greenway” lead to highway expansion?
Without a fast and convenient transportation alternative, the only option to alleviate our growing traffic congestion is to continue expanding Highway 1.
Isn’t adding rail too expensive, and won’t it take too long to build?
It might just be cheaper than highway widening, and you don’t have to own a car! We can also apply for grants from the State Rail Plan as well as from the $105 billion earmarked for rail transit in the federal infrastructure bill.
Additionally, unless and until abandonment of the rail line is filed and approved, the rails must remain, and the rail bridges MUST be rebuilt according to RTC contracts and state and federal law. So, expanding the highway will require funds to pay for the new rail bridges, which only need replacement due to the highway widening project.
Is the corridor wide enough to allow for both trail and rail? Is it safe?
The Westside trail is one of the widest trails in California, and many people use it every day with strollers, walkers, wheelchairs, dogs, bikers and hikers and it has all been very safe. Try it!
Will people be allowed to bring bikes onto the electric light rail?
Absolutely! Bikes and trains work very well together as demonstrated in many cities in the US and countries around the world.
Do we know the cost to retrofit the tracks for freight and light rail?
We do not have exact numbers because the RTC hasn’t completed their projections. However, we know that a large part of the tracks mostly needs new ties and ballasts, and that is easy for railroads to do. They have specialized equipment that drives along the track, lifts the rails, and puts on new ties and ballasts. That is a straightforward maintenance effort for railroads.
It’s also worth pointing out that grants are readily available for this type of work but we must urge the RTC to pursue this ASAP and apply for these grants, as these monies are only available for a short period of time.
Do we know the cost to remove the tracks?
We do not have numbers but there are two aspects of removal to consider. The first one is the cost to take out the rails. The second one is the removal of the railbed’s contaminated dirt. The latter will likely be very costly, probably more costly than rebuilding them.
The tracks were laid out 150 years ago and the rail corridor is under the STB’s (Surface Transportation Board) federal protection. As such it is exempt from some environmental laws for as long as it stays in the system. However, as soon as it is railbanked, the rail corridor will lose federal protections and be subject to more stringent environmental laws. “Greenway” will most certainly face major environmental impact issues, as the dirt is newly exposed when tracks are removed.
Is “Greenway” costly?
Yes! Building “Greenway” between Davenport and Watsonville will require all new designs, environmental reports, and the removal of the tracks.
The bridges and trestles aren’t wide enough to accommodate both rail and trail!
Correct, we need to make some infrastructure changes and when rebuilding our bridges, we should seek to build it for the widest of options and that includes for freight tolerance. Quiet and efficient light freight is around the corner.
How can we make sure there’s enough parking and other transit to take people where they need to go at each of the rail stations?
Part of the rail plan is to organize buses with pulse scheduling at every transit stop, and e-vans servicing the stations, in addition to some car parking and space for several cars to pick up riders. The plan includes making our roads safer for bikes, including bike lanes and sidewalk improvements. Maybe you could add the possibility of buses or e-vans servicing the stations, in addition to a small amount of car parking and space for several cars to pick up riders.
Can the rail line accommodate both freight service and electric rail?
Yes! Running passenger rail by day and scheduling freight rail at night is one possibility.
With the current tracks, how do you accommodate trains that run with enough frequency to make service convenient for regular use?
Regular, single-track rail can create a siding at each station, so that when 2 trains are coming, they go side by side at the station and then move on. With 2 sidings trains will run every 30 minutes and with 3 sidings every 20 minutes, etc.…
Roaring Camp “Adverse Abandonment” Explained by Rosemary Sarkar:
In late January, the RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) initiated a process aimed at the forced abandonment of the Felton Branch Rail Line. Forced abandonment of the Felton line, which is owned by Roaring Camp, would remove Roaring Camp’s right to utilize the rail line for freight use. And freight classification is essential for Roaring Camp as it offers federal protection of easements and trackage rights. If the line is abandoned, Roaring Camp loses its federal protection as a common carrier and (that) will lead to the closing down of Roaring Camp’s operating business plan.
Why is that so? Two main reasons:
One, Roaring Camp can only replace its heavy equipment by rail, and there is no other alternative. Certain members of the Commission keep insisting a locomotive could be trucked in from Watsonville, where two locomotives belonging to Roaring Camp now sit. That can’t work, as Roaring Camp knows, and no one has been able to refute. The locomotives are too heavy and the clearance on Highway 1 is too low. We note that some commissioners think the locomotive(s) could be disassembled and trucked in, but they can’t. These locomotives were never intended to be disassembled even when they were new and now the parts are fused.
But more importantly, if Roaring Camp loses its federal protection, it may lose its tracking rights to the Boardwalk that is governed by the RTC, rather than the Federal authorities who protect railroads. The RTC cannot write a license agreement that is enforceable to protect Roaring Camp’s trackage rights. The RTC is a political entity and politics change, as is currently being demonstrated. Our trackage rights run out at Chestnut St., from Chestnut St. to the Boardwalk we are running on public lines that are owned by the RTC. We have indefinite tracking rights for the time being but if we lose our freight classification, we also lose our tracking rights and won’t be able to get to the boardwalk
Why is the RTC pushing for the line abandonment?
The RTC wants to rail bank the main line that goes from Santa Cruz to Watsonville, and it is difficult to do if the Felton Branch line has the freight classification and federal protection for access to the main branch line. If the Felton Line was abandoned, it would be considered stranded, and the main branch could be railbanked.
How do you respond to people who maintain that freight is not a viable business in the county, stating that three freight operators in the last eight years have tried to make freight work and have failed?
How can there be freight if the RTC hasn’t fixed the bridges? There was freight until 2009 when Roaring Camp picked up lumber for the San Lorenzo Lumber Yard in Felton. They built a landing and a loading dock for it. Freight rail is accelerating everywhere: it is the environmental alternative to trucking. You don’t need a gravel mine in your county to have freight. Rail can bring in cars, heavy equipment, groceries. Quiet, efficient, economical electric freight is already operating in the US, and it is the wave of the future. Getting semi-trucks off Highway 17 is an environmental and safety goal.
“Three rail operators have failed” is simply ignorance of the facts. Sierra ceased operations when Union Pacific sold the branch line to the RTC. Iowa Pacific came in with grandiose plans and was already in financial trouble having nothing to do with Santa Cruz. Progressive negotiated its contract with RTC to hold that they would not be responsible for maintenance until RTC brought the line into service, which RTC has not done since Progressive became the operator, so Progressive could not market freight north on the line.
A note that some commissioners and others keep speaking of “heavy freight” as though it is some onerous rail specialty. Freight is freight. Roaring Camp runs the Big Trees line on freight locomotives on a freight line. Its passenger rail runs on standard freight line. It isn’t light rail.
Roaring Camp is a staging ground for the fire departments in the San Lorenzo Valley, and the line has been used to bring in firefighters and firefighting (equipment?)
Loss of the right to freight would have a highly negative impact on Roaring Camp’s business and would represent the first step in a larger, special interests-fueled effort to end rail service in Santa Cruz County.
To your knowledge, are there easements along the FBL that would revert to the underlying property owners in case of abandonment?
Yes, there are a couple.
Has Saint Paul (Progressive) filed a notice of intent to abandon the Santa Cruz Branch Line?
St Paul (Progressive) did send a letter of intent to abandon the branch line before Progressive learned that it is crucial to Roaring Camp that the line not be abandoned. This is the reason that Roaring Camp is handling freight in Watsonville. Upon conversation with Roaring Camp, Progressive sent another letter, rescinding its notice of abandonment, although it also said that its notice period remains in effect. (That is, should it determine to abandon in the future, it should not be held to require a formal notice.) Progressive has met several times with Roaring Camp and with the RTC. Its position is that it will NOT file for abandonment so long as Roaring Camp wants the line to remain active. That will be so long as the ACL remains in effect and Progressive is the named operator on the contract. Relations between Roaring Camp and Progressive are coordinated. Progressive considers itself an ally of Roaring Camp, both as to abandonment and to contest any attempt at Adverse Abandonment.
The UCIS wrapped up at the end of 2018: https://www.sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/UCS-Final-January2019.pdf
finding that rail transit in the rail corridor, with trail, provided the best return on investment (ROI) for economics, equity, and the environment.
The Transit Corridor Alternative Analysis (TCAA) compared 18 different transit types and concluded that light electric rail transit provided the best ROI, same as above, but specifically identified electric rail, not diesel-electric hybrid.
The RTC accepted the TCAA by a 9-3 vote last year in February, but tied 6-6 on April 1, 2021, failing to move ahead with the next steps below:
The TCAA Business Plan: https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/TCAA_RNIS-Passenger-Rail-Business-Plan-DRAFT.pdf