The February 3 Regional Transportation Commission meeting turned into a proxy battle surrounding the June “trail only” Greenway ballot initiative. RTC staff presented information about how adverse abandonment of the Felton line (owned by Roaring Camp) could clear the way legally for them to abandon and tear out tracks on the Santa Cruz Branch line. Not surprisingly, the public has been outraged by this suggestion. Over 6,000 emails were sent to the RTC opposing this effort to destroy both our transit future and Roaring Camp, a beloved local woman-owned business.
No vote on rail was scheduled or taken. However, in a stunning new twist, at this meeting during the oral staff presentation on a different item, RTC planning staff member Sarah Christiansen revealed a proposal to completely remove the two rail bridges that cross Highway 1 in Aptos and replace them only with bike-and-pedestrian bridges. The stated goal of this staff proposal was to increase the competitiveness for grant applications for the highway-widening project. Strikingly, this proposal was not included in the written staff report. Needless to say, leaving out such a critical element of the proposal from the written record in the public packet contradicts RTC policy, as well as requirements for transparency in government.
New Trail-Only Policy with No Public Process
This new staff proposal to entirely scrap the rail bridges represents a dramatic shift in both the highway widening project plans and rail corridor project plans, without any public process or acknowledgement. If you are as dismayed at this subversion of good governance and good policy as we are, you can click here to write the commissioners. The next opportunity to let them know in person is the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th. Attend this meeting and help put pressure on the RTC. Remind them that both the Unified Corridor study and the Transportation Corridor Alternatives Analysis study settled on rail transit and trail together as the best use of the corridor. Ask them if they intend to abandon the public process or to move forward with the plan of record. Sacrificing the publicly owned rail line to reduce costs for the highway widening project is unacceptable and outrageous.
Adverse Abandonment on the Felton Line?
Why was Roaring Camp and Adverse Abandonment of the Felton Line on the RTC agenda? RTC Executive Director Guy Preston summarized it in the very last sentence of his 13-page report to the Commission:
"...RTC’s ability to railbank [on the Santa Cruz Branch Line] could still be stopped by the opposition of [Roaring Camp, as] a potential stranded line..."
Mr. Preston seems to be using the threat of adverse abandonment to pressure Roaring Camp to agree to permit railbanking on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, or else be punished by the RTC with loss of the Felton Line. It's disturbing to see our Regional Transportation Commission engaged in this kind of behavior.
Highway Widening and the Rail Line
The RTC highway-widening project currently requires the rail bridges that cross the highway to be replaced with longer ones that can span the newly widened highway. You can see the project description on the RTC website here. As stated in the project description, so long as the Santa Cruz Branch Line remains active, the rail bridges must be preserved or replaced. In order to avoid this bridge-replacement cost, this new staff proposal is to file for Abandonment on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, and then to Railbank the line to clear the way for demolishing the bridges. However, Roaring Camp could block abandonment of the Santa Cruz Line. To prevent Roaring Camp from blocking abandonment on the Santa Cruz line, Executive Director Preston seems to be threatening them with Adverse Abandonment of the Felton line. If successful, Adverse Abandonment would make Roaring Camp powerless to oppose the Santa Cruz Branch Line abandonment. Either way, if the Santa Cruz Branch Line were abandoned, Roaring Camp would lose their connection to the national rail network and be unable to bring their locomotives and other rail equipment into their rail yard. Abandonment would also strip the Felton Line of federal protection and leave it to the whims of local control. To add extra intimidation, Brian Peoples, the former organizer and treasurer for Commissioner Koenig’s election campaign PAC, has a publicly stated goal of electing Supervisors in Districts 3 and 4 who will support demolishing the Felton Branch Line, paving it, and forcing Roaring Camp to convert to “rubber-wheeled” vehicles.
Aside from the implications for Roaring Camp, removal of the rail bridges without replacing them would obviously be devastating for the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. If the highway widening project is to proceed, funding to replace the rail bridges must be included in the project budget. We can't allow Santa Cruz County to proceed down the same path that Los Angeles and so many other communities in the USA did in the 50s. Tearing out the publicly owned tracks and widening freeways is not the way forward for a healthy and sustainable community.
Let’s keep the pressure on the RTC to protect, restore and put our rail lines back in service to the community. click here to write the commissioners. Attend the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th and tell them you want both rail and trail, and you want them to respect the public process.
Public Engagement at the RTC Meeting
Commissioner Sandy Brown reported receiving more than 6000 emails supporting Roaring Camp and opposing the RTC staff proposal for Adverse Abandonment of their Felton Branch Line, including this one from the San Lorenzo Valley fire chiefs. Here is a quote from their open letter to the RTC:
"We write you today to urge you not to proceed with any efforts to abandon freight service on the Felton Branch Rail Line or the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. These rail lines ensure there is a rail connection for Santa Cruz County and the rest of California, which may be critical in providing an essential route to the San Lorenzo Valley and other areas during future fire emergencies related to climate change, severe drought and catastrophic wildfires."
The vast majority of public comment was devoted to outrage over the RTC’s threat to force abandonment of the Felton Brach Line. The discomfort of the RTC Commissioners was evident. However, although they asked Mr. Preston to continue negotiating with Roaring Camp, the commission did not commit to preserving the rail lines.
RTC Commissioner Shiffrin on Greenway
The Greenway ballot initiative is widely acknowledged to be deceptive. At the RTC meeting, Commissioner Shiffrin had some great comments on what the initiative would actually do. You can view a transcription of his remarks at the California Local online news service here: https://californialocal.com/localnews/santa-cruz/ca/article/show/3010/3010-transcript-of-andy-shiffin-position-on-coastal-rail-trail/
Here is a small excerpt from his remarks:
"Despite the misleading rhetoric, if the freight easement is abandoned, Greenway supporters will undoubtedly advocate that the rail tracks be removed. And if they succeed, the likelihood of rail service ever returning between Santa Cruz and Watsonville is zero to none."
Thank you to Tony Russomanno for contributing to this story.
Editor's note 2/14/2022: this article has been updated slightly for increased accuracy.
DATA SHOWS RAIL TRANSIT IS FEASIBLE
Some recent press coverage has stated that rail transit is unfeasible. The data shows otherwise. All of the past studies conducted by the RTC found that rail transit in Santa Cruz County is both feasible and fundable. The studies found that rail transit combined with the Rail Trail is the best option to expand our transportation network, because it will provide the most freedom of movement, reduce the most traffic, and lower greenhouse gas emissions the most.
Rail Transit Feasibility Study -- Final Report
The county’s population density is one of the highest in California, with approximately 90,000 people living within one-half mile of the rail line. Areas along the rail line have population densities similar to Berkeley/Oakland and cities along the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. The number of people per square mile in the City of Santa Cruz and the Seacliff area are approximately 4,000; Live Oak ranges from 5,300 to 7,100 people/square mile, and the City of Watsonville has over 7,500 people/square mile.
The Rail Transit Feasibility Study final report can be found here.
Here’s the link to the most recent RTC study, the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis, which had the same findings.
Do Media Outlets Say that Rail is “Unfeasible”?
Unfortunately, at the April’s 2021 RTC meeting, District 5 representative Commissioner McPherson stated that rail is unfeasible because 100% of the funding isn't immediately available. This was a classic ‘straw man’ argument. No infrastructure projects start out 100% funded. With that said, the funding landscape for public transportation has completely changed since then. We encourage Commissioner McPherson to revisit this issue. Not only is there more federal and state funding for rail than ever before, but Santa Cruz County is also well placed to apply for these funds because we have a local match in Measure D. These funds that can be leveraged to apply for grants to repair our corridor and fund the EIR. In fact, the rail project has around 50% of funding already identified. This is an unusually high number for a project of this size.
We urge the Regional Transportation Commissioners to take the next steps towards passenger rail service: drafting and approving an accurate Business Plan, with cost estimates for ultralight rail vehicles, rather than heavy diesel commuter vehicles, and applying for grants for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
What Do We Value?
Since the April 2021 meeting Greenway and the local media outlets that support Greenway continue to parrot the ‘unfeasible’ message. However, at the end of the day this is a question of community and values. Do we value the essential workers and service workers that form the backbone of our economy? Do we want to provide transportation options that save families money and time? Do we want safer streets and traffic-free transportation options? Do we want to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? We believe the answer to these questions is “YES”. If so, then we can fund expanded public transportation in Santa Cruz County, including rail. We are inspired by the creative options put together to finance public transportation by community groups in Portland, which were unanimously adopted by the Portland City Council. We hope that Santa Cruz County leaders will learn from their innovative example.
Guest Post by Paul Schoellhamer
Railbanking is a real thing, but some of the claims being made about it here in Santa Cruz County have no basis in reality.
Railbanking was a legal sleight-of-hand (and I mean that in a good way) that was created by Congress in 1983 to solve a very specific problem: flaws in some railroad land deeds were making it difficult for some of those properties to be converted by local governments into recreational trails.
In that purpose, Congress’s 1983 railbanking provision has mostly been a success: a lot of abandoned rail rights-of-way have been turned into recreational trails. Across the U.S. railbanking has, in 37 years and over 300 specific projects, facilitated the conversion of roughly 6000 miles of rail right-of-way. And those have been all kinds of conversions: trails adjacent to tracks and trails in place of tracks, trails that were paved or not paved but improved or that offered no improvements at all. (In a few cases the rail-right-of-way was just left as a place to cross-country ski in winter – snowfall being the only improvement.) We have a lot of real world experience with railbanking.
Greenway now argues that railbanking can do something very specific here in Santa Cruz County: we can with railbanking remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete and then at some point in the future we can reverse course, tear up all that pavement, rebuild the rail line, and offer some type of electric light rail transit service. The question before us is: Is that a realistic possibility we would be leaving for our kids and grandkids? Or are we being misled into a dead-end?
We could have a theoretical debate about what could or could not happen in a distant future, but we don’t need to. We have 37 years and roughly 6000 miles of real world experience with railbanking. That real world experience tells us volumes about what railbanking realistically can and cannot do.
And here is what all that real world experience is telling us: as much as railbanking has accomplished over all those years and all those miles, it has NEVER done what Greenway says it can do here in Santa Cruz County. To be specific, Greenway claims that railbanking would make it a realistic possibility that we could remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete, and then many years later decide to rip it all up and rebuild the rail line -- and that has NEVER happened in the entire history of railbanking.
The point is simply this: Greenway should be honest with the public. Greenway can advocate tearing up the tracks if they want to, but they should stop holding out to the public the unrealistic claim that under their proposal throwing around the word “railbanking” has any realistic chance of bringing back rail service in the future. Tear it up and pave it over and it very likely is gone forever -- that’s what honesty looks like.
That being the case, the question becomes: Should we sitting here in 2022 be making a decision for 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, when we have (let’s face it) very limited ability to predict what that world will look like then? Or should we in fairness leave that decision to be made by those living in that world, including our kids and grandkids?
Paul Schoellhamer worked for many years as legislative staff in the US House of Representatives, focusing on transportation issues. He now lives in South County.
Modern transportation experts agree on a few things:
Adding passenger rail transit to our bus system will increase county-wide use of public transit from 13,700 trips to 34,200 trips every single day according to the RTC’s recent Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA). That is a 150% increase in public transit ridership county wide. The data is in, and as a result, the county Regional Transportation Commission has selected electric passenger rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative for adding public transit to the rail corridor.
To support this 150% increase in public transit ridership, local funds will be needed to match available state and federal funding. The RTC’s draft TCAA Business Plan states that besides a traditional sales tax, other sources of local funds include “funds from vehicle levy or registration fees, local fuel tax, property tax, income tax, transient occupancy tax, student fees, vehicle miles traveled charges, and parking fees.” What the Business Plan doesn’t say is how to move forward.
Proactive communities are leading the way in finding the equitable “how” to fund expansions of public transit. One of the most successful strategies is the “collaborative” model utilized by the City of Portland in its Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) project, grounded in a commitment to Transportation Justice.
One of the most amazing things about Portland's community-wide effort is that its final report outlines seven near-term and three long-term funding strategies and of these strategies, none involves a sales tax. It should come as no surprise; the final report was unanimously adopted by the Portland City Council with direction to staff to implement the recommendations.
The benefits of improving our public transportation system are so numerous, it is short-sighted and unjust to delay finding the funding to transform our transportation system into the more equitable, sustainable and economically just system we want and need. Let’s take advantage of the tremendously creative energy in our community and go to work on a “POEM” project of our own.