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November 27, 2022

RTC publicly discusses railbanking Santa Cruz Branch

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) on Thursday discussed the future of the county’s rail line, and possibly setting it aside for future use while first focusing on building a bicycle and pedestrian path.

In a report to the commission, RTC Executive Director Guy Preston said that one option is an adverse abandonment action for the line between Watsonville and Santa Cruz, and “railbanking” it, which he said would preserve it while allowing for future development. 

The information-only item came with no action by the commission, but still garnered hours of public comment from both sides of the controversial issue, which has divided much of the community between trail-only advocates and those that hope to one day see passenger rail along the line.

“Railbanking is a mistake,” said Patrick Weismann. “Abandonment of any rail line in Santa Cruz is a mistake.”

Greenway Volunteer Buzz Anderson disagreed, and pointed out that three freight operators in the last eight years—Iowa Pacific, Union Pacific and Progressive—have failed to maintain a viable business in the county. Additionally, freight’s main products—fossil fuels, fertilizer, aggregates and bulk products—do not have a strong presence in Santa Cruz County, Anderson said.

The nonprofit Greenway Santa Cruz recently gathered more than 16,000 signatures to place an item on the June 7 ballot, which if successful would focus the county’s efforts on building the pedestrian and bike path, while sidelining—at least for now—all efforts to work on the rail.

Preston told the commissioners that, if the Greenway measure passes muster with voters, it will likely mean the removal of the tracks.

Most of the 12-member commission appeared to favor keeping the tracks in place and some said they would reject both abandonment and railbanking, should the issue come as an action item.

The 20-foot trail proposed by Greenway would almost certainly preclude any plans for future rail, said Commissioner Andrew Schiffrin.

“By removing the tracks, no train service will be possible,” Schiffrin said. “If they succeed the likelihood of rail service returning between Santa and Watsonville is slim to none.”

Still, an effort by commissioner Mike Rotkin to place a competing measure on the June ballot failed after other commissioners signaled they would not support it.

Commissioner Felipe Hernandez said that he has received more than 5,200 emails regarding the issue. He said that he worried about what the loss of rail means for South County, the area he represents.

“If you lose the rail and we lose freight and the possibility for a passenger train, Watsonville’s 56,000 residents stand to lose everything from jobs to equity to quality of life,” he said.

Leading up to the meeting, Roaring Camp, which has a freight deal in place to subcontract for Progressive Rail’s St. Paul & Pacific Railroad entity, was at the center of the vicious dispute between the two feuding sides of the rail issue.

That Felton-based business said powerful backroom operatives had been pressuring them to play ball with the RTC on a railbanking plan south of Santa Cruz—or else.

The “or else,” they contend, is a threat to push for the line along Highway 9 through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to be declared abandoned, a strategy which—if pursued successfully—could put their tourism and freight operations in jeopardy.

That’s because if the rail line is declared abandoned, the RTC would have more control over Roaring Camp’s tourist train access to key areas of Santa Cruz, including the Boardwalk and Depot Park, the railroad says, adding it would also expose it to the risk of property rights lawsuits.

The RTC has maintained that it is not attempting to nix rail transportation but, in an interview before Thursday’s meeting, Preston said that freight service is barely viable in the region. It’s so bad that St. Paul & Pacific informed the RTC in 2020 it might file for abandonment itself.

Preston said that allowing concerns about freight to hamstring either trail proposal doesn’t make sense, especially when business isn’t booming. St. Paul & Pacific tried putting an intermodal transfer facility in Watsonville, but the company drummed up less than a third of the business they’d hoped to attract, he said.

“They were just losing money,” he said. “The number of cars they were shipping each month was just going down. They said they needed to move 1,000 cars. They were moving more in the neighborhood of 300 a year.”

Plus, Preston said the reason the RTC is on the hook for some $50-plus million infrastructure repairs for the Main Branch in Santa Cruz County is because Roaring Camp didn’t want to shoulder that responsibility in the first place—otherwise they’d be in the conductor’s booth.

“I am really pro-rail,” he said. “Right now the RTC is set up for failure. I’m trying to find a way to put us in a better position.”

Thursday’s meeting was a defacto follow-up from a previous discussion the RTC had behind closed doors last month.

The minutes for the Jan. 13 RTC meeting indicate the idea of “adverse abandonment action involving the Felton line” was brought up by a commissioner, with the agency’s legal counsel confirming the matter could be discussed.

Melani Clark, Roaring Camp’s CEO, in an interview before Thursday’s meeting, insisted the family-run, women-owned business would come under threat if the RTC goes ahead with the idea.

“Local promoters of railbanking have been very clear for several years now that they are against rail, including both passenger and freight,” she said. “They use railbanking to create the impression that our community will get both rail and trail.”

Clark said the RTC held meetings with Roaring Camp about future access to the Boardwalk platform, but only offered to move forward if the railroad agreed not to stand in the way of railbanking.

“Roaring Camp has rejected that option because it would result in a loss of federal protection and would introduce the potential for eminent domain claims in the future,” she said.

If the RTC did railbank the tracks, it could put Roaring Camp in the legal crosshairs within four months, according to Preston.

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